The Senate Friday afternoon overwhelmingly approved legislation that will encourage more renewable energy projects in Vermont. But the bill has re-ignited a debate over the impact of solar and wind projects on the communities where they’re built.
The 22-6 vote in favor of the renewable energy bill belies the intensity of the storm it has created in Montpelier. The bill sets the stage for the construction of 400 megawatts of renewable energy over the next 17 years.
Few pieces of legislation have taken a rockier path to passage this year, and critics of the plan say it does nothing to shape what that the development it creates will look like.
“The siting process should have taken place before we move a bill that’s going to affect thousands of acres of Vermont and change what Vermont looks like for many years to come,” said Essex/Orleans Sen. John Rodgers.
Rodgers helped lead the charge Friday for amendments that would have given municipalities more influence over solar and wind projects proposed in their borders. Rodgers had a powerful ally in Senate President John Campbell, who said lawmakers need to impose more checks on the energy developers that will try to make money off the state’s renewable energy policies.
“I can tell you right now, some of those arrays that I see are as offensive as billboards on any interstate that I’ve ever been on,” Campbell said.
Rodgers and Campbell have won some concessions. The Senate added provisions to the bill earlier this week that will guarantee towns have a role during the regulatory process – they’ll get “party status” during the certificate of public good proceedings at the Public Service Board.
The bill also now mandates minimum setbacks for all solar projects.
But lawmakers rejected amendments for even more municipal sway over the future of energy siting. Legislators like Addison Sen. Claire Ayer said those amendments could end up giving towns veto power over energy projects that are vital to a green energy economy that will help wean the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“Local people should always have a say in the kinds of things that happen in their community, but there are some public needs that we have for infrastructure … where we have to take a look at the common good,” Ayer said.
Ben Walsh, clean energy advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said the legislation will serve to shrink the state’s carbon footprint, by expanding renewable energy projects, and subsidizing weatherization projects that reduce the consumption of heating fuel.
Walsh says that of the 7,000 or so solar projects in Vermont so far, only a relative handful have raised hackles.
“Have there been projects that could be done better? Of course – that’s true of any kind of development. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of renewable energy development has been done responsibly,” Walsh said.
The legislation also includes policy changes that will prevent the state from losing out on about $50 million in annual revenues from renewable energy credits that utilities sell to other states.