Legislators this year promised towns and regions more say in where renewable energy projects are built if the communities write energy plans that pass muster.
Now state regulators are deciding where to set that bar, and critics that include opponents of current Vermont energy policy say it’s too high. However, some officials who have written energy plans in preparation for the new standards say the process wasn’t terribly demanding.
The Public Service Department is seeking feedback on a draft set of standards laying out what a local energy plan must contain in order for the Public Service Board to accord the deference that Act 174 grants to communities.
In short, municipal and regional energy plans must conform to the state’s energy goals and policies if they are to earn DPS certification.
According to Act 174, which was known as S.230 for much of its journey through the Legislature, the certification earns municipal and regional energy plans “substantial deference” before the PSB, allowing localities to specify where renewable energy projects should and should not go.
The Department of Public Service has until Nov. 1 to finalize the standards and will take public comments until Oct. 20. The department released a draft of standards Monday by which to determine whether energy plans are in line with state goals, policies and statutes.
Opponents of the state’s energy policies panned Act 174 when legislators approved it earlier this year, and they received the department’s draft standards with disapproval.
Although department officials said they’re still revising the standards, those revisions aren’t likely to satisfy the most vocal critics, who say that without veto power, towns lack meaningful participation in proceedings for renewable energy proposals.
The group Energize Vermont, a frequent critic of wind power generation in Vermont, said the draft standards will require too much work.
The standards call for “sophisticated analyses that require data that is not available,” Energize Vermont Executive Director Mark Whitworth said in an email. Whitworth did not explain which analyses he was referring to and did not respond to requests for an interview.
Whitworth accused various state entities of colluding with Gov. Peter Shumlin to advance a political agenda. Neither existing law nor localities’ new energy plans will prevent the Public Service Board from manufacturing decisions that further this agenda, he wrote.
Furthermore, he wrote, the Department of Public Service does not understand what’s involved in writing energy plans that would meet the standards it’s drafted.
Although the Vermont League of Cities and Towns welcomed the nascent Act 174 as legislators debated it this year, the organization’s public policy and advocacy director, Karen Horn, echoed Whitworth’s critique, saying the draft standards appear onerous for small towns in particular.
“Our real concern has been that the department seems not to have a particularly good understanding of the capacity of small towns, in particular, to do the kind of research and analysis involved here,” Horn said. “We’re concerned that it’s requiring a heavy lift from small towns.”
Horn said as well that Vermont cities and towns remain uncertain how the Public Service Board will treat the term “substantial deference.”
“We’re concerned that the Public Service Board, the way they’re going to apply ‘substantial deference,’ is not going to be quite as significant as towns expect once they’ve gone through this really complicated planning process,” she said.
Department of Public Service officials did carry out a pilot project last year with three regional planning commissions before legislators adopted Act 174, to test whether the concept of regional energy plans worked in practice.
All 11 regional planning commissions are currently drafting regional energy plans with assistance from the Department of Public Service, said Deputy Commissioner Jon Copans.
These regional plans should provide municipalities with most of the tools they need to write their own energy plans, said Jim Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission.
The commission was one of the three in the pilot project, and all three are in the final stages of writing their energy plans, having begun the process in conjunction with the Department of Public Service before Act 174 was written.
Sullivan said the process should be relatively straightforward for towns, since much of the heavy lifting will have been done by regional planning commissions. The remaining eight regional planning commissions are expected to have completed their own energy plans by May, he said.
Sullivan said there’s no reason to believe the Public Service Board won’t afford regions and towns the substantial deference Act 174 describes.
The plans require towns and regions to comprehensively evaluate and map out future energy needs and development, Sullivan said, and it’s logical that the Public Service Board would give the resulting documents the weight required by law.
Regional energy plans, and the overarching regional plans of which they’re a part, demand comprehensive planning that considers energy efficiency, transportation, energy sources and other factors, Sullivan said. Of all that goes into a regional plan, he said, the question of where to site renewable projects – and where not to – is a fairly small part.
“The issue of renewable energy is extremely important and quite challenging, but it may be the easiest part of the energy puzzle to put together,” Sullivan said. “That’s why it’s good (the planning) is so comprehensive, because it gets towns to consider all these issues, and not just the siting.”
Department officials said they’re seeking participation from Vermonters to refine the standards and will take public comments by email, at a meeting and by whatever other means they arrive.
The department is holding the meeting in Randolph on Oct. 11 at the Chandler Music Hall upper gallery space, at 71-73 Main St., between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.
The draft standards and related documents can be found here.
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