MONTPELIER, Vt. – Vermont’s renewable energy siting bill may have hit a roadblock in the final days of the session, as the chair of the House Energy Committee and Gov. Peter Shumlin are opposing retroactive wind turbine noise limits passed by the Senate..
“There was language that our chair (Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier) said could be a constitutional issue, and he wanted it removed,” state Rep. Marianna Gamache, R-Swanton, a member of the energy committee, told Vermont Watchdog. “He was concerned the state could be sued.”
Klein indicated later in the evening that he learned Gov. Shumlin is also concerned about the retroactive aspect.
The language in question regards new sound decibel standards for wind turbines to be adopted by the Public Service Board on July 1 next year, but which would be retroactive to April 15 this year. The language has created uncertainty for new turbine projects proposed between April 15 and the adoption of the new standards.
With the bill heading back to the Senate amid negotiations between the two bodies, three solutions were being proposed in the House Energy Committee room Thursday night. Two were written and one was verbal. State Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, vice chair of the committee, said the proposals were not yet official drafts.
One was that the Public Service Board would issue certificates of public good for new projects, and the sound standards set for an individual project would remain intact even if they don’t match the new standards to be adopted next year.
Another idea is to create an emergency rule for sound standards adopted 30 days after the bill’s passage. That rule would be constant for all projects adopted before the new standards are written and put into effect in 2017.
A third idea was proposed by a coalition of citizens at the Statehouse calling themselves the Vermont Energy Rebellion. That group suggested adopting New Hampshire’s wind turbine sound decibel limits. This means sound could peak at 45 decibels during the day and just 40 decibels at night. Vermont’s current standards are based on an average of 45 decibels, which allows for spikes in noise above that level. Ram said she would consider the proposal and perhaps share it with her colleagues on Friday.
“We’re in the process of talking together to try and find a common ground,” Ram said. “We’re trying to avoid a veto (by Governor Shumlin). This bill is too important.”
The last-minute negotiations normally get worked out in a six-member conference committee comprised of three members from each chamber of the Legislature. However, since lawmakers failed to form a special committee, the negotiations are essentially take place out of public view.
Another change to the bill relates to radar-controlled warning lights for projects with two or more turbines. The radar technology allows the bright lights to be turned off until an aircraft is nearby. In the House version of the bill, only projects with four or more turbines would need radar lighting.
On Wednesday, Klein consulted with the Vermont Attorney General’s office for further clarification on whether retroactive sound rules were constitutional. Aaron Adler, a lawyer from legislative counsel, advised that the retroactive component was not unconstitutional. The opinion of the attorney general’s office had not yet been announced as of Thursday.
John Brabant, regulatory affairs director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, called any concern about the constitutionality of the retroactive rules “fake.” He said it’s unlikely a developer would propose an expensive industrial turbine project while the rules for sound decibels were uncertain.
He also said wind energy companies applying to the Public Service Board this year might see the new sound standards approved by the time they received a certificate of public good.
State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, said he thinks the bill will become law despite the noise standards flap.
“I am optimistic, and we are working hard with the Senate … to be able to reach a compromise. It’s a very fragile agreement,” he said.
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