ANR wants more resources to handle increase in renewable energy projects

South Burlington's new twenty-five acre solar farm promises to generate a reported 2.2 megawatts of electricity for the state, enough to power roughly 450 homes. VTDigger file photo

A solar farm in South Burlington. VTDigger file photo

The Agency of Natural Resources says it needs more money to keep up with the growth of renewable energy projects in Vermont. Without hiring new staff, the agency said the process of approving new electric generation facilities could take longer.

Distributed solar, biomass and wind projects have been on the rise in the state. The workload for the agency has increased fourfold as funding and staffing remain stagnant, according to Billy Coster, senior planner and policy analyst for the Agency of Natural Resources.

“The amount of dockets that pertain to generation and siting issues have increased exponentially,” Coster said. “But there have been no additional resources provided to ANR.”

The agency must sign off on the environmental impacts of the energy generation projects as part of the Public Service Board’s Section 248 review process. With only two attorneys and one staffer on the cases, the agency said it struggles to keep up with the board’s schedule.

“We support well-sited renewable energy. And we don’t want to be an impediment to the deployment of well-sited renewable energy,” Coster said. “And without the resources to keep up to our obligations through the permitting process, we might actually slow things down.”

In 2007, the board ruled on two projects greater than 150 kilowatts in size, and in 2013, it ruled on 33 projects, according to the agency.

Renewable energy developers have been coming to the state in large numbers recently, in part due to the financing guarantees offered through the state’s SPEED program, which provides incentives for renewable energy projects so the state can meet its clean-energy goals.

The agency has made recommendations on an energy siting bill, S.201, which includes adding new fees on applications for energy generation projects. Revenue generated from the fees would be divided between the board, the Department of Public Service and the agency. The agency said it wants a larger portion of these fees to add staff.

The bill was voted out of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and is now in the Senate Finance Committee. The bill must pass the committee by the end of the week to be considered, unless it is granted an extension by the Rules Committee. Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, who serves on both committees, said he hopes the bill will come out of Senate Finance by then end of the week.

The bill is designed to give local communities a stronger say in the approval process for energy siting projects. But the bill has drawn strong opposition from environmental groups who say it would stall renewable energy development in the state.

The bill requires the board to issue a certificate of public good that conforms to regional energy plans as long as the projects meet several criteria. Renewable energy advocates caution the change to the board’s review process would allow towns to stop new projects from going forward.

ANR opposes the bill as well, but it raises the opportunity to let lawmakers know the agency is operating on limited resources in a time of increasing workload.

The Public Service Board reviews energy projects though the Section 248 process to determine if the facilities serve the public good, which is in part guided by the state’s renewable energy goals. Some towns hosting the projects want them to conform with regional plans, proponents of the bill say.

The Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission released a report on the issue this summer. Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed the commission last year in response to concerns over industrial-scale wind development.

John HerrickJohn Herrick

Comments

  1. Kathy Nelson :

    ANR had no problem spending ample time with the out of state wind developer, Eolian Renewable Energy, while ignoring the people of the areas Eolian was/is intent on destroying. ANR played host to this wind developer for months before the towns even found out what was happening.
    The taxpayers of VT should not be having their precious money spent by indifferent bureaucrats who cater only to corporate interests at the expense of VT’s most precious natural resources.
    Not one more penny to ANR please. In fact, some cutbacks are needed to pay for that ridiculously expensive new set of offices they were just handed.

  2. Annette Smith :

    The public struggles to keep up with these cases, too. And they have no attorneys or staff to assist in dealing with an impossible process at the PSB, suited only for lawyers that cost a minimum of $125 an hour. How many people make that kind of money? If a solar field or wind project lands in your neighborhood, and you try to participate in the PSB process without a lawyer, the PSB tells you to go hire a lawyer.

    Sure, give ANR more lawyers and staff. Give the PSB more lawyers and hearing officers. Get those permits out the door as fast as possible. The public, no, they get nothing from this legislature.

    • John Greenberg :

      Annette,

      I have to confess that I’m getting a bit tired of this refrain.

      Yes, lawyers cost a lot of money. But you’re not the first citizens group who needed to hire one.

      I spent 10 years working with the New England Coalition (at the time New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution), much of it as a fundraiser. The Coalition’s approach for decades has been to intervene legally, mostly at the NRC to bring issues that others aren’t putting forward. We regularly faced legal bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, and in some instance, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, we managed to raise the funds and undertake the litigation.

      Some of our donations were quite sizable, but most of them were in the $10-50 range, and 25 years later I can still remember heartbreaking letters saying “Here’s $1 which is all I can afford because …”

      The PSB is a quasi-judiciary body. It DOES allow pro-se representation (meaning you can represent yourself without an attorney), but it also requires that you respect its rules and that you follow them as though you were an attorney. Some citizens DO represent themselves. The NEC is currently represented in the pending VY CPG docket by Raymond Shaddis who is not an attorney. The Windham Regional Commission is represented by its executive director, again, without an attorney. Other citizens groups HAVE hired attorneys, and none of them is rolling in dough.

      Either learn the Board’s rules and represent yourself or raise the money to hire an attorney. Others have done it; you can too. I might add, PSB staff is very approachable and helpful to citizens like yourself, or at least always was to me on the numerous occasions when I had questions for them.

      Alternatively, if you’re really convinced that the Board process is “too legalistic” then propose a better model for hearing the issues in these cases and convince the legislature to enact it. Unlike you, I believe the PSB model has worked quite well for the state over the decades.

      The constant whining is getting old.

      • Kathy Nelson :

        I didn’t hear any kind of whining in what Annette Smith wrote, Mr. Greenberg. What I have heard is a lot of arrogant indifference in your comment concerning how the public is represented against corporate greed. It would appear that your interests lie with keeping lawyers well paid and making sure opposition to environmental and community destruction goes unheard by those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
        It’s really too bad that such a condition didn’t prevail against the rabid nukaphobes who whined about Vermont Yankee. But the truth is it was all about economics, VY shut down because it wasn’t profitable, not because some lawyer wasted donated money to pitch a fit.

      • John:

        To relieve you of the burden of hearing about Vermonter’s not having legal representation when attempting to defend their rights against out of state industrial solar and wind developers, maybe the public funds used to defend out of state drug dealers operating in Vermont could be used to help innocent Vermonters.

        Vermont has money to provide public defenders for the out of state drug merchants selling their poison here, yet no legal assistance for its own law bidding citizens to defend their homes from out of state developers.

        Doesn’t seem fair.

      • David Dempsey :

        So you think a working person with a full time job should spend countless hours trying to learn the ways of the PSB, learn how to represent yourself at a PSB hearing, or raise enough money to hire lawyers to do it for you. All this to testify to a partisan board appointed by the governor who could care less what the pions have to say. So you say that ” the constant whining is getting old.” Your pompous attitude makes me sick.

        • John Greenberg :

          The governor has re-appointed one member (previously appointed by Governor Douglas) and appointed another. The third member is a Douglas appointee. So, for those keeping score, 2 Douglas appointees to 1 Shumlin appointee on this “partisan board.”

          As to your issue about ” a working person with a full time job should spend countless hours trying to learn the ways of the PSB,” propose a better system.

          • David Dempsey :

            Why did you assume that when I said governor I was talking about Peter Shumlin. I don’t care if the appointment was made Shumlin or Dean Davis as long as the board fairly represents the people of Vermont when they make rulings. The members of the board are very well respected and knowledgable Vermonters, considered to be beyond reproach. But the fact that the PSB is part of the executive branch and its members are appointed by the governor allows critics to question the boards rulings. I question the boards approval of large scale windfarm projects, and exempting them from Vermont’s signature environmental law, Act 250, when it has yet to be proven that they can be a reliable efficient factor in the states renewable energy plans. I also question the approval of a gas pipeline in Vermont that will transport fracked gas from Canada despite the fact that last year Vermont passed a law banning fracking in the state. As a Vermonter, I think the board should provide the people with a detailed accounting of the expected public good from these projects. I don’t have an alternative proposal to offer, but more accountability to the public by the PSB wouldn’t hurt.

        • John Greenberg :

          David Dempsey,

          First, I apologize if I put words in your mouth. I did indeed make the assumption that you were referring to the incumbent governor. I was mistaken to do so.

          You assert that it is “the fact that the PSB is part of the executive branch,” but that’s only marginally true at best. The Board is an independent agency; unlike what most people associate with the executive branch of government, its members, once appointed (and confirmed by the Senate) do NOT serve at the pleasure of the governor and has no power of enforcement. In many ways, the Board is closer to the judiciary branch than to the executive, which is why it’s often referred to as a “quasi-judicial” agency.

          You add “the fact that … its members are appointed by the governor allows critics to question the boards rulings.” THAT was the point of my original remark. Yes, they ARE appointed by A governor, but not necessarily the sitting governor. And unlike other gubernatorial appointments, the governor must first vet possible candidates with the judicial nominating board.

          When Shumlin came into office, he inherited 3 Board members appointed by a governor of the opposing party (one or 2 of whom were actually first appointed by Governor Dean), and in this particular instance, the two governors – Douglas and Shumlin – had extremely different positions on many utility issues: VY, wind development, etc. That makes it very difficult to fathom how partisanship is playing a role here, or if it does, it’s entirely unclear (to me at least) just HOW it does so. Members of the judiciary are also appointed by governors. Would you suggest that’s what “allows critics to question the[ir] … rulings?”

          “I question … exempting them from Vermont’s signature environmental law, Act 250,” but you fail to note the similarity between Act 250 and Act 248. The criteria are virtually identical, but utility issues are technically complex enough that the legislature felt that a single body should familiarize itself with them, rule on them, and be guided by its own precedents.

          Finally, your last comment — “As a Vermonter, I think the board should provide the people with a detailed accounting of the expected public good from these projects.” ignores the most basic fact of all here: namely, that every CPG order IS accompanied by precisely such a detailed accounting.

          Indeed, every order I’ve seen begins with a full recitation of the history of the docket and an identification of the parties. All of the positions taken by each of the parties are then summarized. The Board then presents a discussion of all of this, taking each point raised individually and providing the reasoning applied to it by noting the applicable law, precedent, etc. All of this is fully footnoted so that readers can check the original documents (which are publicly available and nowadays, mostly online). Only then does the order follow. In sum, you’ve just proposed that the Board do precisely what it’s been doing for decades.

          I have absolutely no problem with folks attacking the Board’s (or the judiciary’s) decisions on their merits – that’s completely fair game, and I’ve indulged in it more than once myself. But doing so responsibly, it seems to me, means READING the decision first. In the vast majority of cases that I see in VT Digger comments, there are more than a few indications that the commenter has failed to do so, and seldom any sign that he or she has. Since I’ve tangled here with Annette Smith, I will point out that she’s clearly an exception to this, and that my disagreements with her lie elsewhere.

          • David Dempsey :

            Ok, I give up. You have completely broken me down and proved that all my statements are untrue. I’m sorry that I, like the majority of Vermonters, don’t know what a CPG order is or how to find one. Even if we did, I doubt we could understand what istsays. Excuse me for not understanding that the PSB is only marginally part of the executive branch. As an average Vermonter with only woodchuck character and ethics, I should know better than to think the PSB could ever do anything that is not in the best interest of Vermonters. I apologize for that. I can’t say I read act 248, but I took an evironmental course at Johnson State in the early 70′s that was taught by Jim Jeffords, who, as attorney general, played a part in the development of act 250. Does that count for anything. Probably not because, unlike you, my brain didn’t have the capacity to memorize the law. If I did I might be able to tell you something that you actually don’t know. Although I thought my education at UVM was pretty good, you have clearly shown that I don’t know much. Thanks for setting me straight on that. Maybe if I went to Harvard I could put my frivolous concerns about Vermonters behind me and become more like you.

    • John Zuppa :

      Greenberg…you own the “Whining” title….Whatever your job is, it obviously depends on you “not” seeing the rigged game we’re being forced to play to defend our rights…
      “Without hiring new staff, the agency said the process of approving new electric generation facilities could take longer.”..You should be able to see that they use the word “approving” not “deciding to approve or disapprove” (their desire to approve is obvious)…and Why is “taking longer”…a bad thing when these decisions SHOULD be made VERY slowly and surely…
      Look up how many towns, states and countries have found out the hard way…

  3. Chet Greenwood :

    Of course they need more money!
    All bills introduced should require a legitimate cost/benefit analysis so we know exactly what the repercussions are when we pass these bills.
    We tend to pass these feel good bills that puts average Vermonters in the poor house- with the major benefit going to wealthy non-residents.
    The Legislature should stop doing things sdrawkcab!

  4. Wayne Andrews :

    Sounds like this branch of govt is crumbling under the weight of another branch.

  5. Kim Fried :

    This problem has been known for several years. “Renewable energy developers”, most from out of state and country, are rushing to Vermont with big impact projects in mind and the agency that is suppose to protect our wild life, environment, water……doesn’t have the resourses to keep up and make sure we are protected. What ever happened to “The Governor’s Special Generation Siting Commission’s Report” and the many very pertinent and important recommendations that deal with these problems? Maybe it’s time for the Governor and Legislature to revisit this document that so much very recent work went into. If the ANR does not have the resourses to protect us they should put large high impact projects on hold or slow them down to match their resourses. If not and we continue to move forward with these large projects without the proper protections that the ANR is suppose to provide Vermonters the legistature will get to cut the ribbons on opening days and our envirnonment, wildlife and water will quickly be destroyed.

  6. Chet Greenwood :

    This problem is a no-brainer. The ONLY ones benefiting from this unrealistic RE scam are the out of state developers.
    My first option would be to put all these out-of-state applications on hold until ANR gets relief or require these deep pockets to reimburse ANR staff time @ $125 per hour as the work progresses and not have it part of the tax shelter.
    As we get closer to the 90% goal we will see the demand slow because businesses will not be able to afford VT’s soon to be highest-in-the-nation energy costs and will leave.

  7. Rob Pforzheimer :

    Shumlin made the ANR biologists irrelevant when he, Deb Markowitz, and GMP’s Mary Powell held a press conference to announce ANR’s approval to the Lowell wind project.
    ANR’s request for more money to add to their already bloated staff of permit rubber stampers is laughable.

  8. Phil Lovely :

    If more money for staff at ANR meant more access for Vermonters on and under the ridge lines so meaningful to us and just a means to an end for the hijacked permitting process, there might be merit. Who does ANR represent? Who, now, is their constituency? While Shumlin basks in the sun on his little island, served by locals for whom the phrase ” livable wage” might as well be a river in Russia, the ANR drifts farther from the land and its natural resources and the people who once thought it could be a resource to them.

  9. Rob Roy Macgregor :

    Many of the respondents seem to equate ” the public” with various project opponents. The two are not the same.

    To the extent that PSB has decided that various projects are in the public interest, it enacts a policy that the state’s voting public has supported – increased reliance on in-state renewable generation sources.

    Opponents are not happy about the outcome of these decisions, but that doesn’t mean that the general public is.

    That said, ANR has been underfunded for a long time, and energy projects are not the only projects it must contend with. Certain ski area expansions come to mind…

    I’ll even propose a source of additional funding: Impact fees assessed on commercial and residential real estate developments above a given square foot area that don’t meet low or net-zero energy consumption standards.

  10. walter moses :

    Kathy Nelson, I second your motion!

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