Panel: Towns need more say in siting of renewable energy projects

A solar siting task force will deliver its recommendations to the Legislature Friday, and an incomplete draft of that report shows heavy reliance on regional planning commissions as a means to greater local control.

Some critics of the state’s existing siting policies say the recommendations don’t fix anything substantial.

The recommendations do not offer localities the authority to refuse a project altogether. Lawmakers say that such power would prevent construction of needed energy infrastructure.

“That doesn’t help us,” energy gadfly Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said of the recommendation for greater inclusion of regional planning commissions.

It’s an idea that’s been recommended, and rejected, before, she said.

“We’re supposed to write our plans so that, if we plan for renewables they tell us we have to have, we’ll get greater standing at the Public Service Board — why didn’t that happen before? Because it is the state mandating, and that’s not what we need,” Smith said.

Vermonters want renewable energy, Smith said, and legislators must trust that localities will site renewable energy projects without the heavy hand of state government requiring that they do so.

At a mid-day press conference that was part of an anti-wind demonstration, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Orleans, said he wants the state to give communities veto power for renewable projects. He called for a ban on industrial wind projects and said solar developments should be reviewed under Act 250, the state’s land-use law.

The solar siting task force recommendations give substantial control to local governments, but stop short of assigning them the power to veto a project, because given the choice, many localities would not host renewable projects, Department of Public Service Deputy Commissioner Jon Copans said.

“There was a time when there were probably lively conversations in communities about siting [electric] transmission wires and infrastructure,” Copans said. “But you can’t opt out of siting poles and wires, or you’re never going to have electricity.”

The same holds true for renewable energy projects, Copans said. Nationally and internationally, energy increasingly gets generated nearer to where it’s consumed than before, he said. Modernizing Vermont’s energy infrastructure will bring new energy-generating structures into every community in Vermont, he said.

The task force gives more authority to municipalities to make decisions about where to locate power-generating facilities, Copans said.

“This is about local and regional planning commissions expressing a preference for where this type of development should be located,” he said.

The task force draft recommendations would provide resources and training to the state’s 11 regional planning commissions to enable them to plan for future energy structures. The draft recommendations would also give RPCs jurisdiction in state environmental proceedings for energy projects.

Towns would participate in the planning process, according to the draft recommendations.

The task force might also recommend regulatory and financial incentives to locate new energy-generating facilities in preferred locations. These locations include places that towns designate as ideal, and on sites that are disturbed already, such as landfills, parking lots and gravel pits.

The draft recommendations also encourage creation of several new customer assistance roles within the Public Service Board. These state functionaries would provide administrative support help members of the public communicate with the Public Service Board.

Recommendations include greater use of mediation as well. Smith panned this provision, as she did several others.

Mediation serves parties at an impasse, she said. The public would be better served with a less adversarial process at the outset, she said. Today, hearings on even minor aesthetic siting decisions fill rooms with attorneys, she said. For average citizens to meaningfully participate in the process, they need a far less formal forum where parties might seek to reach agreements before attorneys get involved, she said.

This and other problems would be resolved were the state to use Act 250 proceedings instead of Section 248 for environmental questions regarding renewable energy siting, Smith said. Section 248 gives less weight in the permitting process to aesthetics and other concerns, in service of what it defines as the public good. Act 250, the state’s land use law, has 10 criteria, including impacts on prime agricultural soils and aesthetics, to evaluate the environmental impact of a development.

Section 248 is appropriate for energy projects because they differ in at least one important respect from other development projects, said Vermont Public Interest Research Group director Paul Burns.

“There’s a distinction between a project that will generate absolutely necessary power for citizens of this state, and a project that will build another Wal-Mart,” he said.

The solar siting task force will present its final recommendations to the Legislature on Friday.

The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee meets at 9 a.m. Friday to consider the bill that is part of the solar siting task force’s recommendations.

Mike Polhamus

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23 Comments on "Panel: Towns need more say in siting of renewable energy projects"

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William Geller
6 months 7 days ago

When do electric rates go down ??? The base cost of energy for generating power of natural gas and solar continues to go down ,one would think these reduced input costs would cause our electric rates to go down. II have not heard or read one indication of this WHY??? When costs go up price goes up , I thought it works both ways.

Christine Lang
6 months 7 days ago
Wow. Vt Digger has resorted to name calling in their reporting. Were they even at the Statehouse? Did they talk to any one of the over 100 people who were there looking for reform for renewable energy in Vermont? Did they talk to any of the current Victims of Vermont’s renewable energy gold rush? Every single person who turned out at the Statehouse yesterday to respectfully ask the State for reform of their gold rush renewable energy madness deserves an apology from Vt. Digger. We were there to ask for relief from a process that has unduly burdened both towns… Read more »
Kathy Nelson
6 months 7 days ago
Well said, Christine. That yellow box of comment rules apparently doesn’t seem to apply to the personal bias of Digger reporters. It would be appropriate for the Digger censor to remove the offensive name-calling used by Polhamus in the above “story”. Also I wonder if Polhamus was at the press conference and noticed that Paul Burns attempted to provoke a physical confrontation with one of Sen. Rodgers’ supporters (first physical contact made by Burns in front of witnesses). Burns wanted to make sure that his arrogant stance against the inclusion of citizens in energy projects were supported by “40,000” members… Read more »
Willem Post
6 months 6 days ago
Christine, This about control. The powers, Shumlin, Smith, Campbell, Klein and Bray, and their RE allies, control all. Giving control to local planning and zoning boards, i.e., the Vermont Way, would upset their business model, their way of doing business. If we give control to them over energy sector, they may become emboldened to demand local control over the education and health sectors, which would just ruin all that we have fought for. Much hand wringing here. And the PSB? Moi? Don’t blame us, we are just carrying out what the legislature mandated. We have our orders. Sort of like… Read more »
Randy Koch
6 months 7 days ago

I’d like to have Deputy Commish Copans document that ignorant country folk opposed electrical poles and wires back in the day. If he is just pulling this idea out of his pocket, it shows the utter arrogance of the DPS/PSB powers that be. You don’t often catch them being so open with their contempt. Well ok, I guess they along with big-wind big solar fundamentalist Paul Burns of VPIRG, these guys know what’s best for us and we should fold our hands and listen obediently.

Bruce Lierman
6 months 7 days ago

“Mediation serves parties at an impasse, she said. The public would be better served with a less adversarial process at the outset, she said.”
And that is exactly what the report is proposing.
If RPCs help towns update their plans to show preferred (and undesirable) sites for renewable energy production, we will avoid the last minute second guessing and debates after the fact. Community projects will have guidance as to where to look, and local interests who have concerns about specific sites can voice their concerns as part of the planning process, instead of midway into the approval of the project.

Annette Smith
6 months 7 days ago
Bruce, it’s not that simple. I serve on town and regional planning commissions and I assist people in participating in the PSB process. It takes many months, sometimes more than a year to update a town plan. It takes many months, sometimes years to update a regional plan. We have a legal process at the PSB that has no public process component. The proposal to do siting via planning does not address the immediate problem that Vermonters are facing statewide. The solar siting task force’s ideas are almost identical to those of the energy policy siting commission. There is a… Read more »
Bruce Lierman
6 months 7 days ago
Nothing is ever as simple as the media articles (and the commenters) portray it. Town and Regional plans (I too helped to write our previous town plan energy section and our recent regional plan update) are our statement of our vision for our future and our best defense against development we want to control. This is true under Act 250 as well as 248. Especially in cases of Aesthetic considerations, it’s very important to be as specific as possible. Towns and regions need to decide what’s really important to them in the planning process. It takes time to modify them… Read more »
Christine Lang
6 months 7 days ago
Bruce – what you are saying is what we are asking for – work WITH the towns and regional planning commissions on the placement of renewable energy. In looking at the new map from the RPC for the site of the proposed Swanton Wind project (http://www.nrpcvt.com/Publications/EnergyMaps/Wind.pdf), that ridge is marked as NOT a site to place wind because of its high habitat block – the highest in the region. The regional planning along with the town planners are the correct path to take in siting renewable energy. Not the whim of any developer buying some land where the wind blows… Read more »
6 months 7 days ago
The vtdigger’s “ad hominem” attack policy apparently doesn’t apply to its own reporters. In the above piece writer Mike Polhamus calls Annette Smith a “gadfly”. According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary a gadfly is an annoying person who provokes others by irritating criticism. So Annette Smith, who has perhaps done more to help Vermonters than any other person in the state to get a fair shake before the Public Service Board and other agencies is an annoying person in Mike Polhamus’ mind. It’s probably fair to say that Annette is an “annoying person” to David Blittersdorf and others in the industrial… Read more »
Luann Therrien
6 months 7 days ago

Very unprofessional

gad·fly
ˈɡadˌflī/
noun
1. a fly that bites livestock, especially a horsefly, warble fly, or botfly.
o an annoying person, especially one who provokes others into action by criticism.

MIKE POLHAMUS, YOU SEEM TO HAVE MISPLACED YOUR PROFESSIONAL INTEGRITY.

Luann Therrien
6 months 7 days ago

Mike,
It would appear I am the one who owes you an apology. I am very sorry for my lack of understanding and I will post this exact email to you onto your Digger story immediately.
But, maybe you should add in parentheses after your use of gadfly your intended use of the word as to remove any further misunderstandings. (Socrates called himself the social gadfly to sting people into moral awareness)
Sincerely,
Luann Therrien

Elinor Osborn
6 months 7 days ago

Good journalism does not resort to name calling such as as happened here with the term “gadfly”.

Bruce S. Post
6 months 7 days ago
“That doesn’t help us,” energy gadfly Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said….” I think folks should chill just a little bit about over-interpreting the reporter’s use of gadfly. Actually, if Annette is indeed a gadfly, she is carrying on in the tradition of some great Vermont conservationists: One was the late and beloved Bob Spear, who started the Green Mountain Audubon Society and later the Birds of Vermont Museum. In the 1960s, he was among a small group of Vermonters who fought hard to protect our mountains and water resources. In 1968, he took on legendary… Read more »
Gary Murdock
6 months 7 days ago

I find the indignation from so many on the Gadfly reference humorous. It’s obvious that this is the first time many of you have been on the dark side of the fence that has divided society for so long now. Those of us on the conservative side reside here full time, and are accustomed to the treatment that comes with our beliefs. Those of you who are only visiting as a result of this one issue should try a little ketchup on your dose of reality, it helps get it down.

Phil Lovely
6 months 7 days ago

Polhemus’ distracting and degrading reference to Annette Smith as a “gadfly” causes me to discount him as a reporter and brings into question his competence and objectivity as a reporter. Ms. Smith has been a leading and guiding presence in the expanding movement to protect Vermont’s ridge lines, rivers and wildlife. This reporter’s dismissive reference calls into question the rest of his content and reduces his craft from writing to typing. Vtdigger and the readers who support it deserve accuracy and balance or we will seek that balance elsewhere.

Annette Smith
6 months 7 days ago
The solar siting task force had their 10th and final meeting this morning. Among things discussed is the fact that they never actually talked about siting. What makes a good site, what makes a bad site? How do other states do it? That they never looked at how other states do it was also mentioned today. I have a power point called “Good and Bad Solar” that is not judgmental but enables a group of people to look at built sites in Vermont and discuss them. It is fun and educational. Would have been glad to bring that to them… Read more »
Steve Woodward
6 months 7 days ago
Rather than dwell on the use of the word “gadfly”, let’s rejoice in the fact that practically every news outlet in Vermont picked up on this story. I took Mike to task via email on this issue, and he responded assuring me that it was meant as a complement.The person it was directed to has commented on this story and has not mentioned it.I know personally that she has taken it as a compliment.There is a seismic shift in peoples attitudes towards these projects,so let’s focus on keeping our legislators feet to the fire on this issue.It is an election… Read more »
Mark Keefe
6 months 7 days ago
“In the Act 250 process, people can say anything they want, whether it’s factually based or not, even if it’s just their opinion or their concern,” Chris Rechia, PSD Commissioner (Digger 7/29/15). Translation – Act 250 is too messy for renewable energy projects. From article above “But you can’t opt out of siting poles and wires, or you’re never going to have electricity.” Jon Copans, PSD Deputy Commissioner. Translation – think of this like eminent domain. On no substantive task force recommendations for local control (only influence); “That doesn’t help us,” Annette Smith, Resident Heroine. Translation – that doesn’t help… Read more »
Theo Talcott
6 months 6 days ago

We need major reform at the PSB. Homeowners need protection from investment bankers pushing energy projects. Towns need MORE say, even if that makes it more difficult to get these big projects approved. This bill sounds like a toothless attempt to pretend to do the work that Vermont really needs. Yes, we need high standards, so homeowners aren’t just ordered off their land like refugees just because Vermont Gas or another utility wants to build a project ‘in the common good’ on their land.

Glenn Thompson
6 months 6 days ago

“We need major reform at the PSB”

We’ll get one when the next governor is sworn into office!

David C.Austin
6 months 3 days ago
The goal of reducing reliance on fossil fuels, thereby decreasing Vermont’s carbon footprint is admirable. This can occur without the wholesale rape of Vermont’s landscape. The solution is to allow control at the local level. I served as Planning Commission Chair for the City of Vergennes for a number of years. During that time VELCO filed an application with the PSB for a high voltage transmission line which would bisect the City. I found the process involving the PSB to be heavily weighted in favor of the utility/developer. It appears that the system is equally compromised today. Renewable Energy is… Read more »
6 months 2 days ago

Most other states — every state that I’ve researched, in any event — has solar development go through municipal land use review. Massachusetts, for example, issued this model zoning bylaw for towns, though towns are not required to utilize this model. http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/doer/green-communities/grant-program/model-solar-zoning.pdf The question as to why Vermont has chosen to cut towns out of the loop is quite a politically interesting one. I’d suggest that Digger, along with any activists interested in the issue, follow the money: Who is the state’s biggest importer/broker of these Chinese-made solar panels?

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