Solar Farm Siting: Why Can't the Town Decide?

 “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”
The range of responses by Charlotte residents to two solar projects that were proposed over the last several months reminds me of those aphorisms.  Some folks can’t stand the sight of solar panels while others get excited by them.  Some folks like the idea of renewable energy generation but are concerned that a large scale solar farm near their residences would detract from their property values.

While the decision for the relatively small Thompson’s Point solar project involved a high degree of public participation that got results for those opposed to it, the solar farm project proposed adjacent to Hinesburg Road is subject to an entirely different review process.  This review, which applies to large scale renewable energy projects, is called the Certificate of Public Good (CPG) process and is conducted by the Public Service Board (PSB) to determine if a permit will be granted.

A lot of people are asking, “Why does the Public Service Board have the final say?  What about our planning and zoning bylaws? Why should the state be butting in on a local decision?”  In this article, I will try to explain briefly the how and why of the process.

For small scale solar or wind generation like a homeowner might install, the permit process is pretty simple.  For commercial scale electric generation, however, the amount of electricity being pumped into the electric grid, the connections required, the effect on the environment, the utility buying the electricity, the cost of the electricity, and the effect on rates must be considered.  The PSB is charged in Vermont law to oversee and regulate everything that involves public utilities so that the public is protected and energy availability is guaranteed.  The rules by which it does this for any new project are contained in Section 248 of Title 30 of the Vermont Statutes. 

These rules set up a quasi-judicial process, which means that the PSB effectively acts as a judge to determine if the project is in the public interest and whether any adverse effects are outweighed by benefits to Vermont and the general public.  The PSB takes into consideration many criteria, including the need for the power, alternatives to meeting the demand, the economic benefits like jobs and taxes, Act 250 criteria for environmental effects, aesthetics, how it affects the stability and reliability of the grid, whether it conflicts with Vermont’s energy plan, and whether it contributes to the general good of Vermont.  It is the responsibility of the developer to demonstrate that all these criteria are satisfied.  Moreover, the PSB is very open to participation in the review process by affected individuals, local officials, and other parties as interveners, either on their own or through legal representation.  After hearing all the evidence, and with input from an able staff of technical experts and lawyers, the board may approve the project, reject it, or require modifications that have to be satisfied for approval.

Just as a judge has the authority to make a decision in a court case, the PSB has the ultimate say in a Section 248 case.  However, if any of the parties disagrees with the PSB’s decision, they can appeal the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court.

The bottom line is that the CPG process attempts to ensure that the decision is in the best interests of everyone based on the facts presented.