Some members of the Vermont Legislature are bragging that the energy bill that they passed this past session increases the authority of Vermont’s municipalities in energy siting decisions.
The legislation, known at various times as S.230, S.260, and Act 174, includes a process by which regions and municipalities can elevate the importance of their plans so that instead of receiving the meaningless “due consideration,” they can receive the impressive-sounding “substantial deference.”
This falls far short of the demands of the 155 towns that signed on to the Rutland Town Resolution. The resolution calls for energy developers to comply with “appropriately-developed municipal siting standards.”
Nonetheless, some lawmakers are touting Act 174 as an answer to the Vermont Energy Rebellion; they claim they’ve given towns the authority they’ve demanded. Their claims are untrue:
• “Substantial deference” has little value.
• “Substantial deference” is available only to regions and towns that meet Catch-22
Vermont already has experience with “substantial deference.” A few years ago, the Legislature required the Public Service Board to give substantial deference to towns in the siting of communication towers. It didn’t help towns. It seems that the PSB can always find reasons that the public good is best served by violating a town plan.
The PSB can read a town plan whose meaning is crystal clear to us ordinary folk and reject it because it lacks the right sequence of secret magic words. In a guessing game of magic words, the difference between “due consideration” and “substantial deference” doesn’t amount to much.
On the rare occasion that the PSB determines that a town plan trumps an energy proposal (as it did when it found magic words in Bennington’s municipal plan) it has more to do with political expediency than a genuine balancing of local and statewide notions of the public good.
If you think that “substantial deference” is worthwhile, consider the process that is required to obtain it. Representative Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) rightly characterized it as “circular.” If a regional or municipal plan says the right things, then it will get substantial deference.
We don’t yet know what regional and municipal plans must say—that’s up to Governor Shumlin’s Public Service Department and they haven’t told us yet. But, the experience of three regional planning commissions gives us a pretty good clue.
The PSD took three RPCs under its wing in order to develop super-duper energy plans. The RPCs were the Bennington County Regional Commission (which includes most Bennington County towns), the Northwest Planning Commission (Franklin and Grand Isle counties), and the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission (this commission, known as TRORC includes 30 towns from four counties). TRORC has gone the furthest with its plan.
The first step in the planning process was to determine how Vermont will achieve its goal of 90% renewable energy by 2050. This was done using LEAP, a Swedish computer model that accepts a raft of assumptions and tells you what you need to do in order to reach your goals. LEAP said that Vermont needs 93 MW (megawatts) of new hydro, 400 MW of new wind, and 1647 MW of new solar.
At this point it is important to note that these numbers are highly dependent upon the priorities and assumptions that were input to the model. Our next governor might have very different priorities relating to transportation, heating, efficiency, and environmental protection. Our next governor’s advisors might have different ideas about the new energy technologies that will emerge over the next 34 years. Our next governor might have a different climate action plan—one that protects, rather than degrades, our defenses against the impacts of climate change. Our next governor’s best friends (and biggest campaign contributors) might not be wind turbine and solar panel salesmen. You get the picture: LEAP might produce very different numbers for our next governor.
The next steps in the planning process involved determining where the state’s hydro, wind, and solar resources are located and dividing the state’s generation requirements among the state’s eleven planning regions. Each region was given hydro, wind, and solar targets calculated from the region’s population and its portion of the state’s energy resources.
(The Northeast Kingdom, with its large area and small population, got the biggest solar target… so much for siting generation where the demand is.)
TRORC created a plan that divides its 68 MW wind target among its towns. Twenty-eight towns from Addison, Orange, Rutland, and Windsor Counties would each host at least one industrial wind turbine. Norwich could host two. Randolph could host three. Hartford could host four or more.
TRORC mapped the “prime wind” land in its towns and identified those areas that were within one mile of three-phase power lines. These are the lines that would take the power from large solar installations or small clusters of industrial turbines. It’s easy to recognize three-phase power lines—they’re the ones with three lines (usually attached to a cross-piece atop the utility pole).
You can find all of the details of the TRORC plan by Googling “TRORC Appendix C.” Take a look at the plan for the Town of Strafford. According to TRORC there are 14 acres of prime wind land there that are within a mile of three-phase power lines. That is where Strafford’s industrial wind turbine would be sited.
Are you feeling the substantial deference yet?
If your legislators tell you that they have given towns more authority over energy siting, they are either lying to you or they don’t understand what’s going on.
Remember Howard Beale from the Movie “Network?”
“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’”
Now sit down, take a deep breath, and give thanks that there’s an election coming.
Mark Whitworth is president of the board of directors of Energize Vermont. He lives in Newark.
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