Senators say three year wind moratorium is "urgent"

Two senators -- a Democrat and a Republican -- are pushing for a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind development in Vermont, and Republican House leaders support similar legislation. But the measure may be stopped fast in its tracks when it slams into House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, and the wall of Democrats at his back.

Sens. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, are spearheading a bill that they and other legislators hope to present to the Senate at the beginning of the session. Some of Benning’s constituents in the Northeast Kingdom are up in arms about the Sheffield wind project, a proposed wind farm in Newark and surrounding towns, and Green Mountain Power’s 21-turbine farm in Lowell. Hartwell is concerned about the lack of public input and current government practices surrounding such projects.

Last year, the Senate shot down Benning’s proposal for a two-year moratorium on large wind. Since then, opposition to industrial wind projects has mounted, with a recent Montpelier demonstration drawing nearly 200 protesters.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has acknowledged local opposition to some of these projects, and he created an energy siting commission in early October to analyze how electricity generating projects are permitted in Vermont. Smith said he would prefer to wait until this report is complete before deciding on whether a moratorium is appropriate. The commission, however, isn’t slated to finish its work until the end of the legislative session, and Benning and Hartwell said time is of the essence.

“I think it’s an urgent problem and should be vetted as soon as possible,” Hartwell said.

The new proposal would up the ante from last year, not only increasing the length of the moratorium but also decreasing the size of projects considered “large scale.” Last year, Benning’s proposal for a moratorium pertained to projects that were 2.2 megawatts or greater. This year, the proposal would pertain to projects of a “considerably” smaller size, but he said that personal small-scale wind production should not be affected. He and his fellow legislators haven’t ironed out the exact size that would define large-scale projects.

“The reason for the three years is that the Northeastern Vermont Development Association up here pushed for a longer moratorium,” said Benning. “The idea behind a moratorium is not to stop everything forever. It’s to sit back and take notice of what we have through an analysis and look at how (these projects are) actually performing and decide whether this is the direction we want to go.”

The proposed bill, which Aaron Adler a lawyer with the Legislative Council is drafting, would require large wind projects to obtain an Act 250 permit, said Benning and Hartwell. Act 250 is the state’s governing land-use law, which pertains to a range of commercial developments in Vermont and varies in its execution depending on a project’s nature and locality.

Industrial wind proposals don’t trigger review by an Act 250 commission because they are energy projects. They fall under Section 248 and require a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board, the quasi-judicial body charged with permitting energy generating projects.

Sarah Hofmann, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said including language about Act 250 was unnecessary in this proposed bill, pointing to (b)(5) of that law.

“I think it’s superfluous,” she said. “The separate legislation makes sense because the way Section 248 is written, it encompasses the Act 250 criteria.”

Benning and Hartwell said that the bill may include a “setback” requirement that would prohibit large wind projects within a certain distance of residential zones, and the bill might also include language about developing such projects on public lands.

The two senators are lining up support from colleagues around the state.

“I can safely say that all of the Northeast Kingdom state Senate candidates are in favor of a moratorium, and I believe the Rutland contingent will be coming on shortly," Benning said. "So, you’ve got bipartisan support, and you’ve got different pockets of the state that are affected.”

On the House side of the legislature, Republican Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said he and his deputy Brian Savage, R-Swanton, are working on a bill that would call for a two-year moratorium on large wind development. The two Republican leaders, who have just begun drawing up the details, will likely contend with opposition from Democratic leadership.

Speaker Smith, whose party holds 96 of the House’s 150 seats, is not in favor of such action.

“My view is that we have a siting commission,” he said. “We ought to wait for their report. And if we think there’s a concern about energy development, then perhaps what we need to do is put a moratorium on all energy generation projects and figure out what the mix needs to be.”

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Andrew Stein

About Andrew

Andrew Stein is the energy and health care reporter for VTDigger. He is a 2012 fellow at the First Amendment Institute and previously worked as a reporter and assistant online editor at the Addison County Independent, where he helped the publication win top state and New England awards for its website. Andrew is a former China Fulbright Research Fellow and a graduate of Kenyon College. As a Fulbright fellow, he researched the junction of Chinese economic, agricultural and environmental policymaking through an analysis of China’s modern tea industry. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has been awarded research grants from Middlebury College and the Freeman Foundation to investigate Chinese environmental policies. A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, his work has also appeared in publications such as the Math Association of America’s quarterly journal Math Horizons and Grist.org. When Andrew isn’t writing stories, he can likely be found playing Boggle with his wife, fly fishing or brewing beer.

Email: astein@vtdigger.org

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