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Energy siting discussion reveals Vermont’s portfolio standards as culprit

By   /   February 4, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo courtesy of Town of Swanton

ROOM WITH A VIEW: The debate over giving towns a say over poorly sited renewable energy projects made its way to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy this week.

MONTPELIER, Vt. – The ongoing struggle between municipalities and the Public Service Board regarding who gets more say in energy siting bubbled up again in committee on Wednesday.

Lawmakers in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy heard from a handful of planning professionals about S.230, an energy project sitting bill which attempts to give more leverage back to municipalities.

It didn’t take long for the state’s renewable energy portfolio standards, which were adopted last summer, to come up in conversation. The standards require utilities to get an increasing percentage of energy from of renewable energy sources by 2032, with the eventual goal of hitting a 90 percent renewables target by 2050.

According to multiple speakers who gave testimony, those standards are the driving force behind the push to build more wind and solar, which in turn is creating conflict with municipalities.

“Recognizing the importance of what you guys are doing today looking at renewable energy and siting, it’s like that’s not the biggest part of this puzzle,” James Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Planning Commission, told committee members.

“To reach 90 percent by 2050 requires that we transform our entire vehicle fleet away from anything essentially that is powered with gasoline or petroleum diesel. And it means that we move all of our space heating away from oil and natural gas in the next 35 years.”

Catherine Dimitruk, executive director of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, used models by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation to project how many renewable energy projects would actually have to be built.

“The results, and this is simply one way of achieving 90 by 50, the results show that we would need 42 new megawatts of wind, 10 new megawatts of hydro and 174 megawatts of solar,” she said, referring to the generation necessary to meet Vermont’s energy usage in the future. “When we first saw those numbers it took our breath away, quite literally, because the numbers seem so huge.”

Dimitruk went on to say the state, in her view, does have the property available for such projects without encroaching on sensitive residential areas or environmental habitats.

As introduced, S.230 would not give towns an outright veto on energy projects. State Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, asked Adam Lougee, director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, about applying the Act 250 process when siting energy projects, which would require them to adhere to local town plans. Lougee dismissed the idea.

“My personal opinion is that we probably don’t need to make as dramatic a change in the entire system to make it better,” Lougee said. “I think there are smaller tweaks that can make the system function better. One of them we talked about a little earlier is to reward good planning with a higher standard of preference before the PSB.”

Rodgers responded that if changes aren’t made to the statute PSB operates under, “it doesn’t seem like we’re going to get different outcomes.”

The bill contains six initiatives aimed at making improvements to the siting of energy projects. The initiatives include, among other things, creating a pilot project within the Standard Offer Program to encourage siting in preferred locations; establishing a position at the Public Service Board to provide information and assistance to the public about siting cases; and making ratepayers pay for new three-phase transmission lines to serve renewable generation if the use of the line will allow siting the generation in a location that reduces its impact on scenic beauty.

In a separate interview, Rodgers told Vermont Watchdog he disagrees with the idea of making ratepayers pay the cost of new transmission lines when towns object to projects for aesthetic reasons.

“It’s ridiculous. The developers are making huge profits on most of these developments. There again, if we move to my idea (of applying Act 250), we won’t need this,” he said. “Towns will say here are areas that are suitable to develop; you can either develop them or not.”

Contact Michael Bielawski at mbielawski@watchdog.org.

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A Seton Hall 2005 graduate, Michael has been writing freelance articles for various publications in and around New York City, Seoul in South Korea, upstate NY and Vermont for ten years. He currently is a staff writer at the Hardwick Gazette keeping track of rising school budgets and other rural Vermont issues. He likes best to write about health, economics, and geopolitics generally looking for angles not seen in mainstream media. At home he's very busy looking after two little boys and during free time loves to watch Stanley Kubrick films off Netflix.