MONTPELIER, Vt. – Members of the Vermont House of Representatives voted 142-0 to give towns more input into the siting of renewable energy projects, but one Democratic lawmaker said that input is a sham.
On Tuesday, lawmakers gave unanimous approval to S.230, a bill that aims to give towns a say over where renewable energy projects are sited.
While some Vermonters hoped the Legislature would let towns make siting decisions, lawmakers created a complex statewide planning process that involves local, regional and state planners.
Under S.230, the Public Service Board sets renewable energy goals and standards for plans by regional planning commissions, and RPCs in turn set goals for towns.
“This is fundamentally about ensuring that both our ambitious state renewable energy goals and our Vermont values around local decision making are not mutually exclusively,” said state Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, who presented the bill.
Under the House-approved bill, towns participate in a supposed “bottom-up” planning process. If a town’s plan receives a “determination of energy compliance,” the PSB will give the town “substantial deference” on where renewable energy projects are sited. Substantial deference means the board must accept the town’s plan unless a “clear and convincing demonstration” shows the plan conflicts with the “general good of the state.”
Notably, the alleged “bottom-up” process begins at the top. First, the Department of Public Service issues energy siting standards for regional planners based on greenhouse gas reduction goals, building efficiency goals, and distributed generation and energy transformation categories aligned with the state’s renewable energy standard. Renewable goals are derived from the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan and 20-year plan for electric generation.
Next, the commissioner of public service helps regional planners develop plans that comply with state energy goals. Once the commissioner determines that regional plans are “energy compliant,” regional planners help municipalities receive a similar determination of energy compliance. A town’s plan is determined to be compliant if it aligns with the regional plan.
During debate on the House floor, state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, challenged the process.
“This planning provision seems to me circular. The state, the Public Service Board, the General Assembly, the Department of Public Service will establish the targets and the standards and the definition of compliance, and then you will get substantial deference to your plan from the Public Service Board if you do what they want you to do. I actually don’t think that’s deference,” Browning said.
“We’ll tell you what we want you to do, and if you agree to do that, we’ll give deference to what you say you’re going to do,” she added. “That’s circular! It’s not deference in my definition in the word.”
Ram, responding to Browning, said the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, along with certain RPCs, preferred the House process to the one passed by the Senate. In the Senate version, the Public Service Department works directly with towns in the creation and approval of plans.
Browning asked if the Public Service Board could reject a town’s plan at the end of the entire process.
“Substantial deference is not an absolute,” Ram said. “The Public Service Board still does retain the ability to determine that there is a significantly adverse impact on the public good if they do not site a specific project.”
The part of the bill that House members seemed to like the most pertained to noise coming from wind turbines. According to the bill, the Public Service Board will set new sound standards through a rulemaking process by Sept. 15, 2017.
When Browning asked if the new standards would apply retroactively, Ram said the noise rules pertain only to projects approved and built after April 15.
“The future standards will not help,” Browning objected. “There is no clear path through which the future standards would help anyone negatively impacted from noise pollution from an existing project.”
State Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, thanked the Energy Committee for including the wind noise provisions, but she spoke with mixed emotion.
“At the Lowell wind project there are 500-foot towers – 21 (of them). In Sheffield there are 16 500-foot towers that affect property values, health issues, and aesthetics,” she said. “Every day when I drive through my towns to get here I see those wind towers, and they’re painful.”
“Our towns have been through a lot,” she added. “Lives have been disrupted. Some folks have had to give up their property and their homes. … Personally, I would like to see a future where wind towers are banned – I don’t think they’re a good fit for the state of Vermont.”
Also regarding wind energy, the bill provides appeal status for adjacent towns and RPCs if a renewable energy facility is within 500 feet – or 10 times the height of a wind turbine’s tallest component – of their border. It also requires newly built wind turbines to use radar-controlled lighting if permitted by the FAA. The sensors light up with red lights when planes fly within range.
On matters of hydro power, the bill exempts hydroelectric dams from obtaining a certificate of public good since they are subject to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval and licensing. Also, in cases where an environmental permit requires a reduction in electric energy generated by a hydroelectric facility, electric utilities may petition for a reduction in the renewable energy requirement set by the state’s renewable portfolio standard.
Some provisions passed by the Senate were excluded by House lawmakers. Under the House version, appeals of energy compliance determinations are made to the the Natural Resources Board, not hearing officers; municipalities work with RPCs, not the Department of Public Service; and projects do not receive a a lifecycle cost analysis of greenhouse gas impacts. House lawmakers also cut a provision to establish and fund a public service officer to guide towns through the siting process.
State Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chair of the House Energy Committee, defended the bill.
“We are in the middle of a grid transformation,” he said. “The days of big base-load generation power generators located hundreds if not thousands of miles away, transmitting their product over huge transmission lines over many of our mountains and fields, is not the future.
“We are going to what’s called a distributed generation grid. We’re going to it because it makes more sense for the environment, it makes more economical sense, and mostly because it is independent, secure and reliable.”
The third reading of the bill is scheduled for Wednesday. If approved by both bodies and signed into law, S.230 will take effect on July 1, 2016.
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