Amid Criticism, Solar Siting Task Force Begins Work

Jul 28, 2015

Tensions around renewable energy development surfaced at the first meeting Tuesday of a state task force charged with sorting out issues related to siting solar projects.

Some members of the public criticized the task force for being stacked with government officials and industry developers.

This spring, the Legislature passed a renewable energy bill that its prime sponsor acknowledges will have a profound impact on the state.

"It is going to require a whole lot of renewable generation to be developed and sited in the state of Vermont," said Tony Klein, a Democrat from East Montpelier who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. "And that means you're going to have solar projects and you're going to have wind projects."

The legislation requires utilities to get 75 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2032. That's the law, Klein said. So he told the task force it has to start with that reality.

That was not a message that some in the public seats wanted to hear.

Kathy Nelson of Brighton told the panel the Northeast Kingdom has a disproportionate share of large scale wind projects. And she scoffed at the suggestion that the task force will find a balance between the interests of energy developers and the public at large.

"This is a developer-driven task force. There is no citizen representation on this task force, " Nelson said.

Turning to the one member designated to represent the public, Nelson said:  "You're not one of us. You're one of them. "

"It is going to require a whole lot of renewable generation to be developed and sited in the state of Vermont... You're going to have solar projects and you're going to have wind projects." - Tony Klein, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee

The public member is Linda McGinniss, who staffed a previous energy-siting commission named by Gov. Peter Shumlin. McGinniss serves on the 10-member solar task force with state officials, a town planner, a Green Mountain Power executive, and a landscape architect.

McGinniss was elected vice chair of the task force. And she suggested that it start by gathering some basic information: how much land would be needed to meet the solar piece of the state's renewable energy mandate.

"There is a concrete number of acres, and it's not as big as a lot of people think it is and it's bigger than other people think it is, " she said.

"But let's get it on the table, be clear about where we have to go, and say what kind of policies do we need in place to incentivize developers who are just trying to do their job — but do it in a way that makes more sense for the type of pushback that we're getting in solar siting in the state, " said McGinniss.

The chairman of the task force is Chris Recchia, the commissioner of public service, whose department represents ratepayers and the Shumlin administration. He says the solar boom is good for the state because it's means a cleaner energy supply, a stronger electric grid, and more jobs for Vermonters.

But he also offered a word of caution.

"One of the key things that's missing from here is any type of planning, and catching up to the fact that if you leave it to the developer to choose the site, it's not likely to be where you want it to be, " he said.

The panel also heard from a representative from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, who said local communities want a greater voice over where projects are sited.