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Reshuffling of energy committee could boost wind and solar in Vermont

By   /   January 10, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo courtesy of Vermonters for a Clean Environment

INDUSTRIAL SCALE: A revamped Vermont House committee overseeing energy projects lost both opponents and proponents of wind and solar projects this year.

 

This year, the Vermont House Committee on Energy and Technology will see a change of several members and the impact on future projects could be significant.

When it comes to the fate of large industrial wind and solar projects, the rules that make or break a deal start in the House and Senate energy committees.

Reps. Marianna Gamache, R-Swanton, and Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, were two of the tougher critics when it came to wind and solar development during last year’s session. However, this year they were taken off the Committee of Natural Resources and Energy (which has been given a new name) to serve in other non-energy related committees.

Now, the group of legislators will call itself the House Committee of Energy and Technology. The natural resources aspect is part of the newly formed Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife Committee. This new energy committee will share four members from last year and one remaining Republican: Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh.

Gamache and Hebert were vocal participants during the process of crafting Act 174, the state’s new renewable energy siting law. That law sets specific standards for developers who site projects and for communities who participate in the process. Critics of the bill, including Gamache, say the bill lacked teeth when it came to protecting public health.

“It was tremendously watered down,” Gamache told Watchdog in an interview. “At the very end, there were many of us who were thinking that it might be better not to have any bill pass than to have such an inadequate one pass. In my view, it did not address sufficiently the issue of sound, which for many of constituents is the overriding health issue.”

Gamache added that she’s still concerned about a proposed seven-turbine industrial wind project in Swanton, which has generated substantial opposition.

Hebert also opposed aspects of the energy siting bill, telling Watchdog in April, “I’m not sure that I want to see this go forward.”

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said that he has  concerns about the shuffling committees, a task led by new House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, along with various chairs of the committees.

Turner said he’s aware that Gamache and Hebert were outspoken critics of industrial-scale wind and solar, and he said he expects constituents to pressure lawmakers to revisit Act 174, in particular because turbine noise standards were not set at a level critics wanted.

Turner pointed to other committees where Republicans may have been shortchanged. He said that while there are enough Republicans to fill at least four spots in each committee, there are only three Republicans out of 11 members for the all-important House Committee on Ways and Means.

The Energy and Technology chair, Rep. Stephen Carr, D-Rutland, has said that if new legislation arises regarding wind or solar project siting, he will welcome opinions from all sides of the debate. He also acknowledged varying degrees of voter satisfaction with Act 174.

Carr said no bills have been filed yet regarding solar or wind siting. Both Carr and Turner say it is unlikely that a carbon tax bill will be filed this legislative session, although some expect it to to be on the agenda.

“I heard that it probably will not [emerge this session], but I don’t know that [for a fact],” Carr said.

Wind and solar advocates also have lost some strong supporters in the Legislature. Carr replaced retired Rep. Tony Klein, D-Montpelier, a staunch backer of industrial renewable energy projects.

Carr has demonstrated a commitment to the climate change movement when he voted for divestment from fossil fuels. In addition, he has a 100 percent lifetime score from Vermont Conservation Voters, an environmental group.

Former Vice Chair Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, also a strong renewable energy supporter, is no longer a state representative. She was replaced by new Vice Chair Curt McCormack, D-Burlington.

Correction: An error in this story was corrected at 8:55 a.m. Wednesday. The new energy committee will have four members from last year and one remaining Republican. The original version said six members and two Republicans.

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Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. A Seton Hall 2005 graduate, Bielawski has been writing articles for various publications in and around New York City; Seoul, South Korea; and Vermont. He’s a writer for the Hardwick Gazette, keeping track of rising school budgets and rural Vermont issues. He likes to write about energy and the environment, looking for angles not seen in mainstream media. At home, he’s busy looking after two little boys. During free time, he loves to watch Stanley Kubrick films on Netflix.