The Word in the House 1/19/2014 - An Energetic Start

After a general election the legislative session usually starts pretty slowly as new legislators are oriented and start to learn the subject matter of the committees they have been assigned.  Every bill is born into existence from scratch and the numbering starts from “1”.   However, the beginning of the second session of a two year term is very different.  Bills that were passed by one chamber are already waiting for action in the other.  Some bills that were passed by both chambers with differences that could not be resolved before the final gavel fell last May have been negotiated over the summer by conference committees, and the resulting compromise language is ready to be voted on by both chambers.  Bills that were not acted on last year may find new life.  And many new bills will be introduced.  Committee work starts at a full run, and by the end of the first week, despite the ceremonial joint sessions with the Governor, it seems like we’ve been here a month. 

As I’m writing this at the end of the second week of the session, my committee – the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee – has crafted a bill that will ensure that Vermont’s solar energy industry will continue to grow and create clean energy and jobs.  Net-metering was instituted in 1999 as a way to allow small generators of renewable energy to run their meter backwards.  By 2001 there were 33 net metered systems in Vermont, including 6 small wind and 27 solar systems.  By the end of 2010 this number grew to 153 small wind and 1112 solar systems plus 6 farm methane systems providing a combined total of 12 megawatts (MW) of electric generation capacity. 

In 2009 Green Mountain Power started paying their net-metered customers an additional 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh) for electricity they generated because GMP calculated that it had a net savings attributable to net-metering.  This savings was the result of not having to buy expensive electricity from other generators in New England during periods of peak electric demand.  These peak periods occur during the summer air conditioning season.  As a result the legislature passed a law in 2011 requiring all Vermont electric utilities to pay a “solar adder” which is the difference between 20 cents/kwh and what the utility would normally charge their customers. So for each kwh generated by a net-metered solar system, the customer will be credited 20 cents on their bill. Since then, with the cost of solar panels dropping, solar net-metering has become extremely successful, growing to 39 MW of capacity with more than 2100 systems.  Thousands of jobs have been created in Vermont as part of this industry.

Until now no utility was allowed to accept more than 4% of its total peak demand in net-metering installations.  In 2013 several small utilities ran up against this cap and had to turn away customers who wanted to install solar systems.  The bill our committee developed over the last two weeks addresses this problem and will carry this growth momentum forward allowing consumers to take full advantage of the federal solar incentive tax credits that are anticipated to expire at the end of 2016. It amends the existing solar net-metering program through December 31, 2016, and sets the framework for a future program that would take effect on January 1, 2017.  It increases the cap on participation from 4% to 15% of a utility’s peak load, allows streamlined permitting for solar systems up to 15 kilowatts, and keeps the solar credit at $.20/kwh for smaller projects of 15kW or less while achieving cost savings for utilities by reducing it to $.19/kwh for projects over 15kw. 

The bill also sets the framework for a future net-metering program. It requires the Department of Public Service to undertake a study of net-metering in 2014, and requires the Public Service Board to develop proposed rules for a new net-metering program by January 1, 2016.  These new rules would not be effective until January 1, 2017, giving the Legislature an opportunity to review the rules during the 2016 session.  The bill is scheduled to be voted on this week in the House.

Legislative Report 1/3/2014 - A Legislative Session Preview

While the legislature is out of session from June through December, some members still have work to do as members of oversight committees or of special study committees.  These committees review the work of various departments or agencies of the state or research via hearings certain issues that the legislature will have to deal with in the second half of the legislative term.  Here’s a brief account of some of that work.

Energy Generation Siting Policy Committee

Act 38 of 2013 required the House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Energy to meet jointly during adjournment to review the report submitted in April 2013 by the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission.    In two joint hearings held in the fall, the Committees heard from the director of the siting commission, the secretary of the agency of natural resources, the commissioner of the public service department, and over 20 members of the public.  The siting commission’s twenty-eight recommendations fell in three broad categories: (1) planning, (2) improved public process, and (3) greater protections for the environment, agriculture and health in the energy siting process.  Many of the commission’s recommendations sought to improve transparency and efficiency of the Public Service Board, including an improved PSB website, a new case manager position to provide a point of contact with the general public, and a tiered permitting process which would set requirements based on the complexity of a project.  The commission’s planning suggestions focused on the role of regional and municipal planning commissions in energy siting.  And finally, the commission sought greater weight for environmental, agricultural and health considerations in the PSB permitting process.  By unanimous consent, the committees deferred action on the reports to the legislative session.

Lake Shoreland Protection Commission

The Lake Shoreland Protection Commission was created by the 2013 Appropriations Bill (Act 50). The Commission was comprised of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and 5 Representatives from the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee. Six public meetings were held in Newport, Fairlee, Bomoseen, Middlebury, North Hero and Burlington, and included collaboration with regional and municipal planning commissions and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.  The creation of the commission was in part due to the passage of H.526 in the House, a bill crafted to establish shoreland protection standards for Vermont lakes and ponds in excess of 10 acres. The Senate needed additional time to collect more input from the public, including lakeshore owners and businesses, and to provide more outreach and education regarding the current health and vitality of Vermont’s lakes. There was also a demonstrated need to summarize current regulations, to investigate the need for additional regulation, and to revisit anti-degradation policies with regard to Lake Champlain.  More than 300 public comments from more than 700 attendees were received, logged and categorized. The final commission report is due to the legislature on January 15th. The draft report and public comments can be found here: Work will continue on this subject in the Senate in this session.

Mental Health Oversight Committee

The Mental Health Oversight Committee’s principal focus was in monitoring the on-going creation of the mental health system of care, which continues to be in crisis.  This system relies on three facilities, Green Mountain Psychiatric Care in Morrisville, Rutland Regional Hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat, to provide “level one care” with other hospitals, Fletcher Allen in particular, providing back up.  Level one care is acute or emergency/crisis care.  The result is occasional long waits for some patients in hospital emergency rooms with a negative cascading effect on the delivery of care throughout the system.

While the Oversight Committee and the Joint Health Care Committee strongly recommend that the State Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin opens all 25 beds as soon as possible and no later than July 1, the Administration currently plans to open only 16 beds in the facility when it moves patients currently in the temporary facility in Morrisville at the end of June, resulting in a net gain of one bed.  Until all 25 beds are opened, currently planned for mid-August, the burden on patients and the hospitals will persist.  Ongoing issues within the system include: management of a decentralized system to ensure that seclusion and restraint policies meet state standards; maintaining sufficient facilities and well trained staff and sufficient funding of designated agencies; and returning focus to the needs of children within the mental health system of care. The Committee's report will be released in January.