MONTPELIER – After dozens of hours of testimony and debate — and plenty of jargon about renewable energy credits and portfolio standards — the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy approved a bill aimed at reforming Vermont’s energy siting process.
On Friday afternoon, the five-member committee voted unanimously to approve S.230, the Energy Development Improvement Act.
“I think it’s a very meaningful piece of legislation,” said state Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, the committee vice chair. “We’ve taken the recommendations of the siting commission, and we’ve given municipalities a very clear path to express their preferred locations and to work within the guidelines to improve the process (of) the Public Service Board with the Public Assistant Officers. So there’s a lot of pieces in there.”
State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, celebrated the lack of dissent.
“With a vote of 5-0, that’s a big committee vote. It’s a strong endorsement,” he said. “I think it will be interesting to see what the House does. I’m sure there will be some tweaks.”
The Energy Development Improvement Act aims to give more leverage to municipal and regional planners during the siting process. That means taking some power away from the PSB, a quasi-judicial board that has rubber-stamped nearly every renewable energy project submitted for approval.
State Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, said the PSB still makes the final call despite increased local participation.
The siting reform effort started largely from towns signing on to the “Rutland Resolution,” which called for increased input from municipalities regarding energy projects in certificate of public good proceedings before the PSB. About 96 towns have signed the resolution since it was first introduced in 2014.
S.230 offers financial and process incentives for decision makers to choose locations that don’t disrupt property value, rich farm land or the environment. The bill’s preferred locations include existing structures, parking lots, brownfields and other non-intrusive choices.
Other provisions include appropriations for a public finance officer to help gather information for the public, but not to advise them. Net metering projects greater than 150 kilowatts should be bonded for decommission, and those greater than 15 kilowatts but less than 150 kilowatts should have plans for decommission. Petitions for a certificate of public good should include an analysis of greenhouse gas impacts.
State Rep. Marianna Gamache, R-Swanton, a member of the House Energy Committee, noted that S.230 lacks a wind turbine component.
“This passed without any reference to sound regarding the wind turbines,” she said. “I’m very disappointed because this is a real issue for people who are living under the blade. This will now affect those people going forward.”
An amendment by Rodgers regarding wind turbine noise was rejected by a 3-2 vote. Rodgers said there is no apparent criteria for determining the appropriate distance and decibel noise levels for siting wind turbines. Rodgers proposed that turbines be located a distance of at least 10 times the height of a turbine, in addition to decibel limits for home locations.
The failed amendment might have affected seven wind turbines proposed in Swanton, which would be within 2,500 feet of homes, less than half the standard proposed by Rodgers.
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said she’s not satisfied with the legislation.
“The idea that municipal plans have to get certified in order to get substantial deference at the Public Service Board, I think that’s absurd,” Smith said. “I hope that it does not pass the Senate.”
Smith called some of the changes “a really inappropriate intrusion into the planning process.” She also noted regional plans are supposed to last for eight years and town plans for five, and they cannot be updated in a timely manner.
“We just adopted the new energy section of the Rutland Regional Plan last June, and we are looking to have to update it again,” Smith said. “This just means that planners become these perpetual paper generators, as you are constantly reopening your plan. The fact is that energy plans change with governors.”
The bill now heads to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committees, and then to the Senate floor.
Contact Michael Bielawski at firstname.lastname@example.org.