ST. ALBANS CITY – The Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) presented its draft Regional Energy Plan to community members assembled at City Hall Thursday morning.
The NRPC has developed the plan over the past year and a half. The plan will apply to all 23 municipalities the NRPC represents in Franklin and Grand Isle counties, but only in terms of regional policy – the NRPC does not have regulatory authority.
However, when considering approval of proposed energy projects, the Public Service Board does have to consider how well the project conforms to the regional plan.
The plan’s presentation at City Hall followed a presentation in North Hero on Monday. Another will follow next Tuesday, Nov. 1, in Enosburg Falls. Each is part of the NRPC’s continued effort to use public input to shape the plan ahead of its anticipated December completion.
NRPC regional planner Taylor Newton led yesterday’s presentation. He began by explaining state goals propelling the plan, first and foremost that renewable energy sources produce 90 percent of the state’s total energy by 2050. Barely more than a minute after doing so, the audience, mostly comprised of the Swanton Wind Project’s core opposition, began providing input. “I just want to make sure that, as we move forward, everyone in this room realizes that Vermont is practically carbon-neutral,” Fairfield resident Sally Collopy said. She said Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions annually total an estimated 8.37 million tons of CO2 equivalent, while state forests annually remove an estimated 8.23 million tons, figures produced by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “So that’s why we’re against destroying our forests.”
Newton said the NRPC’s energy plan was devised to meet state goals, “so I can’t really comment either way on that fact.”
Newton often found himself in that position throughout the two-hour forum, reiterating the plan was necessitated by changes in state policies rather than the personal philosophies of the plan’s designers and clarifying that the NRPC has not become “a creature of the state, more than a creature of the region,” as one attendee put it.
“All municipalities are creatures of the state, if you want to talk about that in [terms of] Dillon’s Rule,” Newton replied, referring to 19th-century court decisions that determined sub-state governments may engage in activities only specifically sanctioned by the state government. “But the fact is no one is forcing the region to adopt this plan, no.”
He repeatedly emphasized the plan is ever-changing, not just based on public input, but also on developing state standards, specifically regarding Act 174, which concerns energy siting, not to mention developing alternative energy technology. But he found only so many chances to discuss the plan itself, as attendees objected to the state’s new energy policies.
For example, Newton’s note that more drivers are expected to use electric vehicles by 2050 prompted an attendee to share the story of a friend’s daughter, who must borrow a car for longer-distance trips because of her electric vehicle’s small range.
Newton said, “I think it’s fair to say that the model assumes there will be an increase in range for electric vehicles over time.” The model also imagines that people will travel less and live in more densely populated village centers and cities surrounded by rural areas in the future, he added.
“So the Vermont dream is not the Vermont dream anymore,” said Swanton resident Christine Lang. “The Vermont dream to me is you’re living out on 10 acres, and living in peace and quiet.”
“We’re not going to move anyone,” Newton clarified. “What we’re saying is what the state’s development goals have been for 30, 40 or 50 years is that we’re going to develop in our dense regional centers.”
Then there was the Swanton Wind question. A graphic in the NRPC’s plan identifying Rocky Ridge, the Swanton Wind Project’s proposed site, as one with wind energy potential, led Collopy to ask if people should assume the NRPC supports approving the project.
“That project’s going to be dealt with through the Public Service Board process,” Newton said. “As you’re well aware, we’re going to intervene in that process. Our board has not made a decision whether it approves or disapproves that project or the reasons why it approves or disapproves.”
One of the few excerpts from the plan Newton was able to discuss between conversations with the audience concerned the amount of in-county space necessary to generate 174 megawatts of solar-powered electricity, one of the goals to meet the state’s 2050 requirements. Generating that amount of solar power would require 1,200 acres in Franklin County – a measly 0.33 percent of the region. Newton noted the NRPC’s preferred solar siting locations are on rooftops, in old landfills and gravel pits and on parking lots, if possible. Audience members nodded approval.
Several questions were put before audience members, who cast digital votes that were instantly turned into percentages. Of the dozen audience members, 91 percent supported taking a closer look at real-time energy usage in an effort to conserve energy, 56 percent supported reducing annual fuel needs and transitioning to renewable fuel sources (with 22 percent unsure and 22 percent against the idea) and only 25 percent supported increasing the region’s renewable energy supply, with 38 percent against the idea and 38 percent unsure.
“Leave wind out of it, and I could have probably voted for it,” said one attendee.
The city hall presentation’s greatest success might have been inspiring public trust in the NRPC – or at least in Newton. Attendees called the presentation a “heck of a show,” and praised Newton for his openness and for being receptive to so many comments.
The final question: “Could all this change with a new governor?”
Newton nodded heavily, emphasizing the lack of a finish line for the plan. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. Welcome to our world.”
The next NRPC presentation is Nov. 1 in the Enosburg Falls High School Library at 6:30 p.m.
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