The Word in the House 4/25/2016 - Towns Get More Say in Energy Siting

2015 saw an increase in solar arrays springing up across the Vermont countryside. This was occurring as developers and landowners became more active in seeking opportunities to take advantage of Vermont's incentives for net metering of renewable energy. These incentives promote Vermont's goal of obtaining 90% of its energy needs from non-fossil fuel sources by 2050 and have been successful in creating thousands of jobs and keeping Vermont's electricity rates the lowest in New England except for Maine. However, the sight of large arrays along the Route 7 corridor in New Haven as well as other places has become controversial. A letter initiated by Rutland Town and signed by more than 140 municipalities including Charlotte requests that towns be given more input to the Public Service Board's decision-making process.
As a result, the Senate Judiciary committee, chaired by Senator Chris Bray of Addison County, took up the task of addressing this issue and, after months of testimony, passed S.230, the Energy Development Improvement Act. For the past month, the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee has been reviewing S.230 and, after taking several weeks of testimony, made some substantive changes, and voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
Every energy project requires a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) to be issued by the Public Service Board (PSB) before it can be constructed. Act 56 of 2015, the Renewable Energy Standards Act, gave towns the automatic right of intervention in CPG hearings for projects in their communities. The PSB currently is required to give “due consideration” to the input of testimony provided by the town. This means that the PSB would take the testimony under advisement, but could effectively give it less weight than it gives to the benefits of the project. This is the situation that led people to believe their concerns were not being heard. S.230 would now require the PSB to give “substantial deference” to a town if the town plan meets certain standards. “Substantial deference” means that the project would have to align with the town plan to get PSB approval unless there is a clear and convincing demonstration that other factors affecting the general good of the State outweigh the limitations in the plan.
In order to get substantial deference the town plan would have to meet certain standards in conjunction with a regional plan. The standards would be set by the Department of Public Service in consultation with other state agencies, Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs), the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and other interested parties, and would have to address energy conservation, efficiency, fuel-switching, and use of renewable energy for transportation, heating, and electricity. These standards have to be completed by November 1, 2016. Subsequently, RPCs would develop regional plans using these standards to identify areas suitable for various types of renewable energy generation. If the standards are met the regional plan would be approved by the Department. A town plan would then get approval from the RPC if the town plan adequately addresses the same criteria with regard to identifying sites within the town where renewable energy technologies would be suitable as well as unsuitable. The goal is to give municipalities a role in determining locations as opposed to blanket rejection of any renewable energy siting. In case a town wants to move faster than its RPC to get substantial deference, it would be able to apply directly to the Department up until July 1, 2018, when all RPCs are expected to have plans in place.
From the time the Lowell, Sheffield and Georgia Mountain wind projects have been operational, complaints from nearby residents about noise and associated health effects have persisted. While hundreds of complaints were recorded, the vast majority came from a few of the nearest neighbors to the projects. During its consideration of S.230, our Committee heard the concerns from many private citizens and audiologists regarding noise issues. As part of the revisions to S.230, the PSB will be required to open a docket to review the noise issue, develop standards for acceptable noise levels, and make recommendations for methods of noise mitigation with respect to the nearby residences. S.230 also included provisions addressing some hydroelectric facilities and radar-controlled lighting on wind turbines.
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