After four hours of back and forth, the Vermont Senate gutted a controversial bill on Tuesday that would have given municipalities more leverage over the permitting process for large wind and other energy generation projects.
The senators then voted 24-6 to pass on the remains of S.30 for a third reading on the floor this week or next.
“It’s not even a quarter of the bill,” said Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, about the amended version, which he voted against. “Even though it’s essential for us to move off of our addiction to oil and onto renewables, I don’t think it’s to the point where we should just be led around by developers of (renewable energy) projects. It concerns me.”
Removed from the bill is language that would have required electric generation projects with a capacity greater than 2.2 megawatts to comply with Act 250 land-use criteria for a 15-month period ending on July 1, 2014. The chief aim of the proposed language was to give towns and municipalities more power in the application process for proposed energy generation projects. One of the key Act 250 criteria that large developments must conform to is a town plan.
Act 250 is the state’s governing land-use law, and it applies to commercial developments but not to energy projects.
The quasi-judicial Public Service Board regulates electric generators under Section 248 — a process that has been widely criticized this past year for excluding public participation. While Section 248 requires “due consideration” of town plans, it does not necessitate conformance, as S.30 would have done before the major sections were struck from the bill.
What is left is a series of economic, environmental and health assessments associated with wind turbine projects that the Public Service Department would have to carry out. The bill would appropriate $75,000 for the department’s assessments, and it refines the structure of the Legislature’s Joint Energy Committee.
This next year, the bill would charge the committee with reviewing the department’s assessments as well as the findings of the energy siting commission, which was created by Gov. Peter Shumlin in response to issues raised with the current siting process.
The bill also prohibits commercial construction, including electric power plants, “within any state park or forest.”
Paul Burns, director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said he is glad that the amendment passed and that the current bill doesn’t contain “the most offensive portions with respect to renewable energy.”
He mostly supports what’s left of the bill but said he would like to see the state’s assessments focus on the positive elements of wind generation, not just potential problems. Although Burns says he is a strong proponent of Act 250, he asserted that large-scale energy projects should be permitted under a separate set of procedures because they affect “the overall public good” of the state.
“There is a separate review process for energy facilities, and I think that makes sense,” he said. “The idea that we as a state can decide, for instance, that we want to pursue renewable energy for this state is not a goal that should be trumped by a particular town that says no for any reason at all to even the consideration of a renewable energy issue within its borders.”
The tiny Northeast Kingdom town of Newark voted 169-59 in 2012 to amend its town plan to articulate that large-scale wind developments are not appropriate within the municipality.
The sections of S.30 that were voted down could have prevented such developments in Newark until at least 2014.
How the vote sugared off
When Sens. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, introduced S.30 at the outset of the legislative session, the bill included a three-year moratorium on the development of wind turbine projects with a capacity greater than 500 kilowatts.
The version of the bill that passed out of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which Hartwell chairs, did not include the moratorium. It did, however, include Act 250 criteria.
The Senate then voted at the beginning of Tuesday’s floor debate to consider an amended version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden. That version, which was debated, included more streamlined language and used a higher threshold of 2.2 megawatts to trigger the bill’s Act 250 measures — rather than the 500 kilowatt marker originally proposed.
Debate over the bill kicked off to a heated start around 9 a.m. and left senators looking pale and exhausted by the time they finished at 1 p.m.
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, pleaded with his fellow senators to pass the bill on behalf of the Northeast Kingdom towns that are opposed to the development of wind turbines on their ridgelines.
“They don’t have the money to hire expensive lawyers,” he said. “They don’t have lobbyists in this building every day. S gives that community a voice in front of the Public Service Board to say, ‘Stop. We need further study. And we cannot compete with the deep pockets of this developer.’ Please support my small community … we have contributed our fair share towards our renewable energy goals.”
Benning spoke passionately about the environmental devastation he sees on Lowell Mountain, defending the term “rape,” which he used in a January op-ed associated with Green Mountain Power’s Kingdom Community Wind project.
“I don’t know any word in the English language to better describe what I see there,” he said, passing out pictures of the project’s construction on the Lowell Mountain ridgeline.
“Are we going to let policy goals for the state trump what individuals are raising concern about?” Benning asked his fellow senators. “We’ve heard about NIMBY-ism, this is not in my back yard. I have to ask within the normal confines of this state … what is in our backyard? If the citizens of (these Northeast Kingdom towns) are all telling us we have a problem that needs to be dealt with, is that not all of our backyard?”
While many legislators — like Democratic Sens. Claire Ayer, Dick Sears and Ginny Lyons — were unwavering in their opposition to the bill, others were torn.
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, vocalized his internal conflict on the matter.
“I find that the more I live, the more opportunities I have to betray myself,” he said. “The vote today is a vote against clean renewable energy — and I’m sorry but the bill inconveniences or slows down clean renewable energy — or to vote against the Act 250 jurisdiction over the troublesome development of pristine areas.
“The question for me finally is what trumps what … are we serious about global warming or are we not? So, I’m going to vote against the bill and I’m going to break my own heart in doing it.”
Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, told senators that he would vote for the bill to keep the debate on the matter moving forward, but he was hesitant to do so. Westman’s votes would likely have resulted in a tie that Lt. Gov. Phil Scott previously said he would break in favor of the bill.
In a last ditch effort to remove the Act 250 sections of the bill, Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, proposed a compromise. His amendment would strike the Act 250 language from the bill, and it would carry forward the studies and the Joint Energy Committee’s work on recommending a new siting process.
The first time the senators voted on the amendment, it resulted in a tie, with Lt. Gov. Scott voting it down. But then Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, asked for a revote — his fellow senators said he was confused about the exact provision on the table.
Sears then voted for the amendment, and the bill was amended by a vote of 16-14. The Senate then overwhelmingly sent the bill forward to a third vote.
Afterwards, Zuckerman said that he felt giving towns “temporary veto authority” would give “towns a false hope,” as that power could go away a year later.
“In January, eight months from now, we can review whether we should change our laws in a much more comprehensive permanent way, or not, but with complete information,” he said. “So, to have a temporary yo-yo plays with their emotions much more than what we passed today.”
Benning said he was pleased with the end result because it will send a stronger message to the House that the state needs to look into this matter further.
“It’s a heck of a lot stronger statement than a 15-15 tie-breaking bill,” he said. “While it did not have everything I was hoping for, it keeps the discussion alive and that’s the most important thing that this whole past few months were all about.”
This story was updated at 7 a.m. on March 27.