Municipalities across Vermont have grown frustrated over the lack of local influence in the renewable energy siting process, but key lawmakers say one of the last bills to cross the legislative finish last week will give towns a greater voice.
East Montpelier Rep. Tony Klein has served in the Vermont House for 14 years. As chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, Klein has dedicated much his legislative career to passing the renewable-energy policies that are responsible for the dramatic growth of wind and solar energy over the past decade.
He says growing angst at the local level over the siting process for those projects is threatening to derail future development, and undo that good work.
"We felt that whether or not it's real or not, there seemed to be a building feeling in the state of unhappiness, and it was looking like it was beginning to divide people," Klein says.
Klein says that's why in his last session, he was willing to sign off on regulatory reforms that go "way beyond my comfort zone."
"I personally really wanted to walk out of here having brought folks in this state a little closer together and hopefully to create a path that ensures success for well-planned, well thought-out renewable energy projects," Klein says.
The legislation is called Senate Bill 230, and it will give towns more sway over the regulatory process used to approve or deny energy projects, provided they develop municipal plans that are deemed to be in compliance with the state's overarching renewable energy goals.
"You're part of an engineered system. You can't just say we don't like this stuff, or we only want it over there," says Addison Sen. Chris Bray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources. "We need to look at it from a rational engineering perspective, and that's what the state's planning brings into the conversation."
The bill also directs the Public Service Board to create new sound standards for noise emitted by mountaintop wind turbines, which has become another flash point in the energy debate.
Like Klein, Bray thinks the bill will resolve tensions that might otherwise prevent the state from realizing a plan that calls for Vermont to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
Bray says the siting issue will always be controversial.
"But my hope is just as Act 250 brought an orderly way to plan out ordinary development, that what we're building in S. 230 will bring us an orderly way to sort out what we do in energy development," Bray says.
Annette Smith, head of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, says legislators have missed the mark entirely.
Town plans will be able to earn what's known as "substantial deference" in proceedings before the Public Service Board under two circumstances: Either the commissioner of public service signs off on an individual municipal plan, or they get certified by a regional planning commission who's regional plan has won the commissioner's blessing.
Under either circumstance, Smith says that means towns are still hostage to the same political forces that are disenfranchising them now.
Smith says new rule-making for sound standards doesn't hold any promise either, since it relies on the three-person Public Service Board to draft those rules.
"What this Legislature has done is punted back to the Public Service Board which has failed already to protect the public from ... noise pollution coming from the wind turbines," Smith says.
Other critics of the energy-siting protocols are more optimistic. Sally Callopy lives near a proposed wind project in Swanton. She says she's disappointed lawmakers didn't enact more stringent noise standards, but she's calling on Gov. Peter Shumlin to sign the bill.
"The Public Service Board now has the chance to show that they are actually listening to the concerns of Vermonters being impacted by industrial wind," Callopy said at the Statehouse last week.
In a press release sent out early this week, Callopy said the "bill acknowledges the need for change in the way renewable energy projects are sited and the need to give more voice and input from municipalities," and that the bill's passage "acknowledges that noise from wind turbines is a problem."
Critics of wind energy had sought more intensive intervention from lawmakers. A previous version of the bill would have instituted a de facto moratorium on wind project for the next 18 months, since it would have forced any new applications for wind turbines to abide by noise standards that won't be finalized until the rule-making process is complete.
Lawmakers say Gov. Peter Shumlin threatened to veto the legislation if they didn't remove that provision.
The compromise calls for a 45-day moratorium on wind projects. Projects that seek regulatory approval after 45 days, but before the final rule-making is complete, will be subject to interim rules that the Public Service Board will fast track over the next month and a half.
Anthony Iarrapino is a consultant and spokesperson for the developers seeking to erect turbines in Swanton. He says the 18-month moratorium would have jeopardized the "substantial investment" that the project owners, Travis and Ashley Belisle, have invested in the proposal.
Iarrapino says uncertainty wrought by the shifting standards doesn't make for an ideal regulatory environment. But he says he doesn't think the arrival of new sound standards will prevent responsible wind projects, like the one he says the Belisle family wants to construct.
The Belisles live one-third of a mile from the proposed turbines, and Iarrapino says they intend to live there after they're erected.
"The process should result in standards that the project can abide by, and that's incredibly important, because this project is also going to be in the backyard of the Belisle family," Iarrapino says.
Iarrapino says that if the state is going to give "substantial deference" to town plans, then it needs to make sure those plans are based on sound information and science. Iarrapino says decisions around the town plan in Swanton and other communities in that region are "being based on bad science and misinformation that's tainting the process at the local level."
"There's a lot of unfair targeting and just a lot of window dressing about supporting renewable energy, but really trying to design plans that make it nearly impossible for [some] renewable energy projects," Iarrapino says.
Mark Whitworth is president of Energize Vermont, a group that has galvanized opposition against ridgetop wind development across the state. Whitworth says the legislation passed last week doesn't adequately address concerns about noise, and that his organization will continue seeking other remedies.
"While it acknowledges that turbine noise is a concern ... we're concerned that it creates a period of vulnerability where more wind victims could be created in Vermont with new projects that will try to slide under the forthcoming rules," Whitworth says.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has indicated he's supportive of the bill in concept — he thanked lawmakers for the bill in his adjournment speech — but an administration spokesperson says Shumlin's office has yet to examine the legislation in detail.