Senate Votes For More Local Input In Renewable Energy Siting

Apr 1, 2016

According to the results of a recent poll by VPR, a majority of Vermonters favor the development of more solar and wind energy projects. That same survey, however, found that residents have significant concerns with the regulatory process used to determine where they go.

It’s a paradox that Senate lawmakers are trying to resolve by giving communities more say in the siting process. But critics say they’re doing it at the cost of the state’s green energy goals.

Melodie McLane has more than a passing interest in the debate over renewable-energy siting. Three years ago, she watched as a Vermont wind-energy developer erected four turbines atop Georgia Mountain.

“We’re 3,800 feet to the closest turbine,” McLane says.

Since then, McLane says, life hasn’t been the same.

“The noise, it’s too loud,” she says. “Our quality of life has been diminished because we can’t enjoy our property outside anymore on certain days.”

Enough Senate lawmakers have been moved by stories like McLane’s that the body has taken up several controversial siting measures this year. McLane watched from the Senate gallery on Thursday as lawmakers debated a series of amendments designed to force regulators to address concerns like hers, as well as grant towns more say over whether projects get built in the first place.

The amendment McLane cared most about would have required the Public Service Board to continually monitor sounds levels at homes and businesses near wind projects. It failed.

"What exactly has the Public Service Board done to address the needs of some and the concerns of some of the people you see in this room here today? And a lot of us feel that for one reason or another, they haven't done a lot." — Senate President John Campbell

But the Senate approved other amendments that would give towns considerably more say over the siting of wind and solar projects. And according to Senate President John Campbell, their passage is in many ways an indictment of the system.

“What exactly has the Public Service Board done to address the needs of some and the concerns of some of the people you see in this room here today? And a lot of us feel that for one reason or another, they haven’t done a lot,” Campbell said.

The amendments that passed on Thursday will be pinned on to an underlying energy bill that has generally broad support from renewable energy developers, and from the environmental advocates who want to see the state curb its reliance on fossil fuels.

The amendments, however, would require regulators to give what’s known as “substantial deference” to municipal plans, even if those plans haven’t been certified as being compatible with the state’s overall renewable energy goals.

Job Copans, deputy secretary of the Department for Public Service, says that’s a problem.

“The move to give towns what approaches veto authority on projects before they do that planning raises a real concern,” Copans says.

Another amendment requires the Public Service Board to issue recommendations on mandatory setbacks for wind projects, as well as maximum allowable noise thresholds. The amendment was offered despite the fact that the board is already in the process of evaluating many of those same issues.

Chittenden Sen. Tim Ashe said forcing the board to change course mid-stream would amount to a vote of no-confidence in the integrity of the process it’s involved in now.

"The move to give towns what approaches veto authority on projects before they do that planning raises a real concern." — Job Copans, deputy secretary of the Department for Public Service

“The question here really is are we so distrustful of the Public Service Board, and for some in this room I’m sure the answer is yes, that the board can actually develop policies and behave in a way that does ensure people can have peaceful living if they happen to be located near a wind turbine,” Ashe said.

In fact, the answer to that question was ‘yes’ for the majority of the senators in the room, and the amendment passed.

Ben Walsh, climate and energy program director at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says the wording used in the amendment betrays basic misunderstandings about energy projects. And he says the last-minute amendments threaten to undermine the state’s pursuit of a plan that calls for the state to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

“They’re setting state policy on important topics on the fly,” Walsh says.

Critics of the amendments passed on Thursday will likely find more sympathetic ears in the House, which is where the bill heads next.

Olivia Campbell Anderson is executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, a trade group that represents industry interests. Anderson says the complaints from people like McLane don’t represent the views of the majority of residents, and she says adoption of the measures passed by the Senate Thursday would hike electricity rates, and undermine a sector that employs more than 16,000 Vermonters.

“A small, vocal minority of Vermonters are pushing for new laws that threaten our progress, progress that reduces climate pollution, increases self-reliance and meeting our renewable energy goals,” Anderson says.

Whatever happens to the bill next, Campbell said the Department of Public Service and Public Service Board should take notice of the Senate votes on Thursday.

“If there was ever a wakeup call that should be taken, this is the one,” Campbell said.

This post was edited at 9:40 a.m. on April 1, 2016 to correct the year by which the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for the state to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources.