Lawmakers Brace For Contentious Renewable Energy Siting Debate

Jan 11, 2016

The renewable-energy industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Vermont economy. But the siting of solar and wind projects has begun generating public outcry in communities across the state, some lawmakers want to give towns and cities more control over the fate of projects in their borders.

Last week, in a packed committee room on the first floor of the Statehouse, Addison Sen. Chris Bray set the stage for what could be one of the more contentious debates of the 2016 legislative session.

“The point of today’s session is to give us a chance to see the lay of the land – what people are proposing, what’s come out of the work between sessions,” said Bray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

As it turns out, there been quite a bit of movement on this front since the last legislative session, and Senate lawmakers have already introduced at least 10 bills dealing with the issue renewable-energy siting.

The question of where renewable energy projects belong, where they don’t, and how to figure out the difference, continues to divide lawmakers. And as constituents plead for more power over the regulatory process, some legislators are looking to change the laws that govern the green-energy sector. 

“My sense is there’s strong support for renewable energy in this state, and it’s not if we’re going to develop it, but how we’re going to develop it,” Bray said.

"My sense is there's strong support for renewable energy in this state, and it's not if we’re going to develop it, but how we're going to develop it." - Chris Bray, Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy chairman

Last year, lawmakers devoted enormous energy to a piece of legislation that sought to give municipalities more sway over the process used to approve or deny renewable energy projects. The law now ensures that municipalities have “party status” in the legal process used to approve or deny energy projects. It also allows towns to create screening ordinances for solar projects.

The bill has done little, however, to assuage the concerns of some lawmakers, who say the regulatory process still largely ignores the will of municipal plans and zoning regulations. Caledonia Sen. Jane Kitchel, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, says she’s heard from many municipal leaders in her district.

“And from their perspective, and I’m sure people will have different views, but they feel ignoring the content of these documents and existing regulations tends to undermine the efforts of the state to see each town develop and utilize these documents," Kitchel said.

Last year, lawmakers adopted a state energy plan that calls for Vermont to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning says that directive has largely tied the hands of three-person regulatory board that reviews energy projects.

"They [Caledonia municipal leaders] feel ignoring the content of these documents and existing regulations tends to undermine the efforts of the state to see each town develop and utilize these documents." - Sen. Jane Kitchel

“By far and large, the towns are being dismissed in whatever claims they’re making because there is an overriding state objective that the Public Service Board is trying to accommodate,” Benning said.

Ben Walsh, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says lawmakers should wait to see how last year's legislation plays out before it proceeds with other major revisions to energy-siting protocols.

Walsh says the state as a whole has a vested interest in the development of green energy. And in the same way that Vermont doesn’t let a single town veto construction of power lines needed to transport electricity elsewhere, he says lawmakers can’t afford to give municipalities de fact veto power over energy projects. 

Walsh says all forms of energy generation have pitfalls. But he says the solar and wind projects popping up across the state are a far better solution than power from coal or gas Vermont would otherwise have to import.

“Today we actually have the opportunity to take responsibility for our own energy, generate more of it here in Vermont, and that’s a good thing,” Walsh says.

Bray says he expects to pass a bill this year that acknowledges the concerns of towns without impeding the growth of renewable generating in Vermont.