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Department of Public Service asks public to cut standard of living

MONTPELIER – The Department of Public Service wants Vermonters to make sacrifices to meet the state’s ambitious alternative energy goals.

Giving up some rural landscapes for solar arrays, sharing cars and driving less, and generally using less cheap oil and gas are all in order if the state has any hope of achieving 90 percent renewable energy usage by 2050.

This was the message of the DPS at a public forum held at the Vermont College of Fine Arts on Tuesday morning. Included in the crowd of about 100 were some state legislators and energy professionals.

The forum allowed the public to provide input on the standards the DPS must create per Act 174 of 2016 for ensuring consistency of regional and municipal plans with state energy policy.

Furthermore, according to S.260, signed into law this summer, town and regional plans must adhere to state energy plans if the Public Service Board is to give “substantial deference” to those plans during the energy siting process.

DPS Director Asa Hopkins led much of the initial presentation. He said that eventually communities should create maps that overlay what he categorized as primary and secondary constraints for alternative energy development.

He primarily used solar development as an example. He did not get into wind turbine development, which has lately been under increased scrutiny.

Some examples of primary constraints include vernal pools, river corridors, FEMA floodways, rare and irreplaceable natural areas, transportation infrastructure, federal wilderness areas and wetlands. Some secondary constraints include agricultural soils, conserved lands, deer wintering areas, hydric soils and habitat blocks.

Some estimates on just how much land might be needed for enough solar generation to meet energy goals include 800 acres of solar arrays per Regional Planning District. With 11 districts, that could mean 8,800 acres or about 14 square miles of panels for the state.

“Thinking that every single field is going to be covered in solar is a long way from expected,” said Hopkins.

Hopkins suggested a shift from oil and gas to renewables would mean, from an economic perspective, a shift away from operating costs (primarily fuel) into capital costs (infrastructure). He suggested the overall aggregate of energy costs should stay relatively the same, give or take about 5 percent.

Such analysis conflicts with previous Watchdog reports that alternative energy sources currently cost ratepayers substantially more than conventional sources such as oil and gas.

As the meeting broke off into discussion groups, a handout was distributed with some examples of energy policy goals for everyday citizens. Some of the transportation goals included:

“Holding vehicle miles traveled per capita to 2011 levels or below … Reducing the share of single-occupancy vehicle trips by 20 percent or more by 2030 … Double share of bicycle and pedestrian commute trips, public transit ridership, etc. by 2030.”

A recurring theme in one of the discussion groups was “One-size-fits-all is a difficult standard to work with,” as Judith Jackson of Irasburg put it.

State Rep. Joseph Troiano, D-Stannard, reiterated as much. He said Stannard has of a population of only about 150 people, with no paved roads and certainly no public transportation. Residents are spread out and they go to work in different directions, so any notion of ride-sharing is pretty much off the table.

Ed Stanak of Barre, former candidate for Vermont attorney general, said DPS will face opposition by giving any energy or transportation goals substantial weight. Stanak said the moment strong language such as “shall” or “must” is used with any policy there’s going to be substantial push-back.

Another point raised was that when a home is improved upon in any tangible way, the assessed property value will go up. This means a resident could actually be penalized by the state for ultimately advancing state energy policy by better insulating their home.

Troiano, who has some experience as a property lister, said there should be a way residents can upgrade their insulation without raising property taxes.

Hopkins, upon hearing the group express a handful of concerns with the numerous energy, transportation and life style proposals, acknowledged there’s no quick fix.

“No one action is going to make all of these goals come true,” he said.