Public Service Department Rejects New Haven Energy Plan

Sep 1, 2017

The Department of Public Service has rejected New Haven's energy plan.

Under the state's new energy siting law towns or regional planning commissions have to get their energy plans approved before they're granted more input into the state regulatory process.

Towns across Vermont have argued that they don't have enough authority to control energy development.

Lawmakers passed Act 174 last year to give towns more say in the Public Utility Commission permit hearings.

But the municipalities or regions have to first explain in those plans how they'll to contribute to the state's overall energy goals.

And a lot of towns are working with their regional commissions to put the complex plans together.

Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Barrett says there's been a lot of solar development in New Haven and so the town decided to put an energy plan together on its own.

"We want to keep our land open. We don't want it covered in solar panels," says Barrett. "So we decided to go ahead and put together our own plan. Because we knew it was going to be 18 months before the regional planning was going to be ready."

Barrett says New Haven had a tough time accessing all of the information and data while it was writing the plan.

State officials were still tweaking the law, even as New Haven was trying to get its plan completed before this year's Town Meeting Day vote.

The Public Service Department rejected the plan on four points.

The Public Service Department says New Haven failed to make acceptable estimates for future heat and electric use, and did not provide efficiency targets as required by the law.

The state also found the plan lacking in its mapping of potential areas for development, and that it did not do a "raw renewable energy potential analysis."

Barrett says for two of those points, data were not even available until after New Haven finished its plan.

"We're disappointed," Barrett says. "The frustration comes in that our town attorney worked with us, and she was changing that energy portion on a daily basis because more information was coming out every day. So, it's disappointing but we're moving forward."

And moving the plan forward will get even more complicated.

"We want to keep our land open. We don't want it covered in solar panels. So we decided to go ahead and put together our own plan." - Kathy Barrett, New Haven Selectboard chairwoman.

The New Haven planning commission has to take its rejected plan and bring it into compliance, and then voters will have another crack at it at next year's town meeting.

Barrett says New Haven will continue working on its own and not partner with the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, which is working on a regional energy plan.

Public Service Commissioner June Tierney says the town made a good effort to meet the laws standards.

It's Tierney's job to make the final determination on the energy plans and she says she understands all of the work involved in putting the plans together.

"You know this is a decision that I did not find easy to make at all because I had great sympathy for the citizens, given the clear effort that was put into this," Tierney says. "The Department certainly took note of that, was very appreciative of that."

She says New Haven made a good effort but she says the energy siting law is strict, and it doesn't allow her to make a  partial ruling on the parts of the plans that do meet the standards.

"They have, essentially a plan that just has a couple of things that need to be re-done," she says. "It's not an all or nothing thing here, but the determination is, and that's where I think the statute could be drafted more flexibly, but it isn't right now."

Karen Horn, the director  of public policy and advocacy at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, says the law asks municipalities to make some unrealistic assumptions about future energy use and consumption trends.

Horn also says the energy siting law asks too much from smaller towns like New Haven that want to write their own plans.

Horn notes it was a pretty tough lift to get the energy siting law passed at the end of the 2016 legislative session. She says that while there might not be much appetite to open the law back up there are issues that need to be resolved.

"When Act 174 was passed, it was passed on the last day of the session and it was tremendously controversial," Horn says. "But I think it's really flawed in some pretty substantial respects and we'd like to be able to  make some changes."

The Public Service Department approved the Bennington County Regional Commission Plan in June, and is currently reviewing energy plans from the Northwest, and the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee regional planning commissions.