Lawmakers To Consider More Local Control In Solar, Wind Siting

Dec 4, 2015

The intensifying debate over where renewable energy projects belong, and where they don’t, is about to land in the Statehouse again. And some lawmakers continue to want to give towns more control over projects proposed in their backyards. 

Addison Sen. Chris Bray was in the eye of the hurricane during the last legislative fight over renewable energy siting. He says the prospect of another storm is daunting.

“Some people are dreading the idea of dealing with this again,” Bray says.

But constituents opposed to large solar and wind projects are pleading with lawmakers for more power over the regulatory process. Bray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, says lawmakers need to address the outcry. 

“We’re really changing the way we use the landscape, and we’re not used to it,” Bray says. “And I think frankly there are projects that have been well done, and other projects that have been not so well done.”

Bray will soon introduce a bill that could become a vehicle for changes to the process used to approve energy projects. It’s unclear, however, what the legislation will contain. 

At minimum, Bray says he wants to add a “public information officer” to the three-person Public Service Board that gets to decide whether projects can proceed. He says the position wouldn’t advocate for any one side. But he says it would help non-lawyers and small towns navigate the complex regulatory process.

"We're really changing the way we use the landscape, and we're not used to it." - Sen. Chris Bray

“They provide a single point of contact to make it easier for someone to have access to the process, to understand the process, to understand the filing deadlines,” Bray says.

Lawmakers earlier this year passed legislation that gives towns party status in the regulatory process, created minimum setback requirements for solar projects and allowed towns to have screening requirements for solar projects.

“Rather than piling on change on top of change, I would like to make sure we understand the impact of the changes we’ve already made,” Bray says.

But Bray says he’s open to additional changes. He says he plans to talk with the Public Service Board to see whether, and how, the changes are impacting energy dockets, “and then consider making additional change in order to address the shortcomings of what we’ve achieved so far.” 

Bray he says he’ll consider seriously whatever recommendations emerge from the Solar Siting Task Force that’s been meeting all summer and fall.

Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning thinks towns should have far more control over projects in their borders. He says efforts to reform the regulatory process have proven largely unsuccessful.

“I decided to change tactics to some extent,” Benning says.

Benning will soon introduce legislation that would change the game for many energy projects. If the project wasn’t undertaken by a local utility, like Green Mountain Power, then it would be subject to local zoning ordinances. Energy projects are now regulated by the Public Service Board. 

Benning says he thinks the appetite for this kind of proposal will be stronger in 2016.

"Everybody's suddenly sitting up and taking notice as the natural resources around us are being impacted." - Sen. Joe Benning

“Everybody’s suddenly sitting up and taking notice as the natural resources around us are being impacted,” Benning says.

Bray though says the state shouldn’t slow progress toward a statewide plan that calls for the state to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2032.

“It’s very clear to me that we need to continue to have a state-level planning process that can help us make progress for the long run,” Bray says.

Benning says his legislation would undermine the need for renewable-energy proliferation in Vermont by allowing solar, wind and other green energy produced in other states, but purchased by Vermont utilities for use here, to count toward the state’s renewable energy portfolio.

The task force will unveil its legislative recommendations in January.