Report Recommends Limited Local Input On Solar Projects

Jan 29, 2016

A long awaited report on the siting of solar energy projects recommends more input from regional planning commissions in the regulatory process.

The task force that wrote the report stopped short of giving municipalities veto power over solar projects, but advocates for more local control say the fight is far from over.

The Legislature created the Solar Siting Task Force last year to review the regulatory process for permitting solar energy projects.

The group's report was released last week and it recommends an expansion in regional and town energy planning as well as ways for energy plans to be included in the Public Service Board permitting process.

The task force was put together to answer the rising cry from across Vermont that municipalities should have more of a say in whether projects should be permitted within their town or city boundaries.

Karen Horn is the director of public policy and advocacy at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and she sat on of the ten-member task force panel.

Horn says the recommendations included in the final report represent only those that everyone on the panel could agree on.

"From our perspective this is a starting point," Horn says. "Everything that's recommended in here would be an improvement but there's more that could be done as well."

The number of solar energy projects in Vermont has risen sharply over the past few years, and there are now almost 5,000 solar arrays spread out across almost every town and city in the state, the report found.

"It seems to me that there's sort of a critical mass of local governments and legislators who have now had some experience with the Public Service Board process. So the likelihood of getting something passed is higher than it's ever been before." — Karen Horn, a member of the Solar Siting Task Force

Solar energy projects are permitted by the Public Service Board, and Horn says town governments and planners are frustrated by how little control they have over the process.

And she says even though the task force report failed to recommend an expanded role, lawmakers still need to listen to the call for more local control.

"It seems to me that there's sort of a critical mass of local governments and legislators who have now had some experience with the Public Service Board process," she says. "So the likelihood of getting something passed is higher than it's ever been before."

Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia was chairman of the Solar Siting Task Force.

"For those that wanted a town veto, that's not in the public interest. We want towns to participate. We want them to tell us what they prefer and not prefer, but truthfully, I think everyone on the panel, or almost everyone on the panel, felt that the state should retain the authority on that." — Chris Recchia, Public Service Commissioner

He says it's important for the Public Service Board to have the final say over solar projects as the state tries to meet its goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewable resources before 2050.

"For those that wanted a town veto, that's not in the public interest," Recchia says. "We want towns to participate. We want them to tell us what they prefer and not prefer, but truthfully, I think everyone on the panel, or almost everyone on the panel, felt that the state should retain the authority on that."

But Senator John Rodgers, a member of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee says giving towns and cities more say will not necessarily slow down solar development.

"I strongly disagree with the Administration's position that this will stop renewable energy," Rodgers says. "I think it will, in the long run, make for better siting and maybe even more renewable energy getting put on the ground. If we don't address it the backlash, I believe continues to grow."

Rodgers wants renewable energy projects to be evaluated within the Act 250 process.

The Natural Resources and Energy Committee is working on a bill, S. 230, that lawmakers hope will improve the siting of renewable energy projects.

Rodgers says a number of amendments are being debated to address the concerns from municipal officials, and their constituents, who want a greater say in how and where renewable energy projects are developed.