Woodstock – A new regional energy plan that asks every community to shoulder part of the burden for the state’s green energy goals could change the playing field for those who have battled over the local siting of solar and wind energy generators.
The plan, proposed by the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Energy Commission in accordance with state law, assigns each community a renewable energy target, and asks them to actively identify locations where solar or wind farms to meet those targets could be sited.
“Because the state’s goals are so optimistic, we’re going to have to allow renewable energy generation in our communities,” said Chris Sargent, a senior planner with the commission who helped draft the plan. “We can’t just say no.”
The targets for each community are based on two factors – population and potential.
The larger a town’s population, the larger its target.
The target also is affected by the town’s generation potential – the acreage that has solar-friendly southern exposure, or windmill-friendly ridgelines.
“It’s a somewhat crude tool, but it gives towns a rough idea as far as where to start,” Sargent said.
For example, in Woodstock, one of 30 towns that make up the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee constituency, has a solar capacity target of 8 to 9 megawatts, and a wind capacity target of about 2 to 3 megawatts.
One megawatt is enough energy to power about 180 homes.
Woodstock Town Manager Phil Swanson said he had not yet seen the plan, but that it likely would come before the Selectboard at some point in the future.
Last year, a developer withdrew his plan to put in a solar farm on a 15-acre pasture next to Woodstock’s Taftsville Cemetery after community leaders voiced opposition to the project, which would have generated about 500 kilowatts of energy.
Under the new regional energy plan, Woodstock still would have been subject to the decision of the Public Service Board, which has state authority to site green energy facilities over the objections of local communities.
Currently, the Public Service Board must only give “due consideration” to local input.
Under Act 174, which was signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin last month, the Public Service Board is required to give communities with identified green energy sites “substantial deference,” according to Sargent.
“They’ll have stronger weight,” he said.
Sargent said the intent is to strike a balance between a town that legitimately wants to protect its scenic viewsheds, and those that are opposed to any local siting.
“You can’t say ‘all of our roads are scenic, so you can’t put it anywhere,’ ” he said. “I do think at the very least, it will give towns the ability to push back as long as they’ve done appropriate planning.”
In Strafford, town leaders have yet to review the regional plan draft, but Selectman John Freitag said his personal opinion is that all green energy projects should have to go through an Act 250 permitting process, which he said is more transparent and open than allowing the Public Service Board to make a decision.
“I believe that, rather than making special exemptions for telecommunications or commercial renewable energy, we should see that Act 250 has served us well over the years,” Freitag said.
A developer is moving forward with plans to establish a 5-MW solar facility in Strafford’s Elizabeth Mine; the plan met significant local opposition, but won the support of the Public Service Board last week.
“I think this ‘substantial deference’ is a step in the right direction, but I think, in my personal opinion, it needs to move even further,” Freitag said.
Steve Campbell, chairman of the Strafford Planning Commission, said the regional energy plan will be scrutinized over the next six weeks as Strafford revises the energy chapter of its town plan.
He said he would reserve final judgment on the plan until after he’d reviewed it in more depth, but he didn’t like the idea of identifying certain areas of town as being open for a wind farm.
“We’re certainly very hesitant about designating areas of private land that are most suitable for that,” he said. “That just smacks me as not being the right thing to do.”
Sargent said many questions remain about the 46-page plan, which has been sent to both the commission’s member towns and the Vermont Department of Public Service for review and input.
“We do have targets,” he said. “But we can acknowledge that there’s a lot of different possibilities of how this can be implemented. We’ll see how towns want to do it.”
Among the unknowns is whether the draft’s notion of the town-specific energy targets will hold up, and what would happen if a town successfully petitioned to lower its target.
Hartford would have, by far, the highest target, with between 25 and 29 MWs of solar energy and 6 to 12 MWs of wind, far above the second-highest target, of 12 to 14 MWs of solar and 3 to 6 MWs of wind, in Hartland. By contrast, Granville and Hancock have the lowest targets, with 1 megawatt of solar and no wind.
In Hartford, the draft has been reviewed by the Hartford Energy Commission, and Lori Hirshfield, executive director of the Planning Department, is gathering information to help facilitate a discussion during the commission’s July 28 meeting, according to Chairwoman Martha McDaniel.
Under Act 174, the Department of Public Service is tasked with drafting regulations that will keep the state on pace with its goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
Peter Gregory, executive director of Two Rivers-Ottauquechee, said he anticipates communities that draft energy plans in accordance with the regional plan will be on pace to meet the Department of Public Service’s upcoming standards.
“We’re working in the same direction,” he said.
The state standards, he said, will dictate whether “local and regional plans are worthy of approval by the state.”
The draft plan also includes a map that uses statewide geographic data to map out all possible locations for solar and wind energy; Sargent said he expects towns to use that as a starting point in deciding exactly where a solar or wind farm might go.
Two Rivers-Ottauquechee is one of three regional commissions that have regional energy plans drafted; over the next couple of years, every regional commission in the state is expected to undergo the same process.
The Two Rivers-Ottauquechee plan is unique, Sargent said, in that it breaks down targets by town.
Once the plan is modified to accommodate input, Sargent said he expected it would be adopted by the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee commission’s board, which is comprised of representatives from the member towns.
Sargent urged towns to review the plan and make their opinions known.
“We want people to be aware of what it will mean for their communities,” he said.
Proposed renewable energy targets for individual towns and maps that identify potential wind and solar energy sites can be found at http://www.trorc.org/energy-implementation-plan/.
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