Commentary

Smith: Respecting our communities and environment

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Annette Smith, the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, based in Derby.

The hue and cry over efforts to better regulate and evaluate renewable energy development in Vermont is revealing to many Vermonters a bully mentality previously seen only by those who live in areas where development has been occurring.

Ever since passage of the SPEED legislation in the mid-2000s, renewable energy developers have had their way with legislators, coming back every year for more “streamlining” of the permitting process. As a result of the unencumbered lobbying by the renewable energy industry, meteorological monitoring towers go through an expedited process, appeals of Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) permits are heard by the Public Service Board (PSB), and wind developers can get a certificate of public good from the PSB without identifying the specific size or make of the machines they intend to construct. They can sell their renewable energy credits out of state, yet still get credit for meeting the SPEED goals in Vermont.

All that changed in 2009, when the general public living in areas where these big wind machines were being proposed and permitted started to push back, asking for hearings on appropriate siting standards and setbacks. For three years, the House kept the siting and setback legislation bottled up in committee, stifling any discussion about issues that the PSB has been deciding on a case by case basis, often with poor results that we are now witnessing.

This year, with new leadership of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, the public finally has had an opportunity to be heard. The relevant legislation, S.30, originally contained a moratorium on wind energy but after consideration of the issues, the committee thoughtfully made changes to try to address the concerns about future development.

The bill now contains a short-term study, a review of the SPEED program, and proposes modest changes to the PSB process to enact the Act 250 criteria rather than just consider them; a provision that sunsets after the study is completed. S.30 creates a place for the recommendations of the Energy Generation Policy Siting Commission to be incorporated when their work is finished in about a month.

This modest piece of legislation would, if passed by the Senate, then receive “robust” hearings in the House committee according to Speaker Shap Smith. But it is being billed by the renewable energy industry and those who support its bullying tactics as an all-out assault on renewable energy development. Email alerts claim that it would require developers to go through both Act 250 and Section 248, that it would effectively stop renewable energy development and feed the fossil fuel industry. These claims are not true, and are insulting to the good people who are working to evaluate our state’s energy policy and assure that we are doing renewable energy development the right way.

The fear-mongering and outright lies about the content of the legislation coming from opponents of S.30 is consistent with the behavior of renewable energy developers in our communities.

Even Rep. Tony Klein, who kept the siting and setback legislation from getting a hearing for three years, admitted not long ago on the “Mark Johnson Show” that the state has been working to enact policies that are now resulting in projects being built, and if there are problems then that is a normal part of the process and the problems should be dealt with.

Instead of acknowledging that renewable energy development (in particular big wind, but also biomass and large solar) has issues that should be discussed, the efforts of the opponents of S.30 are to shut down the conversation before it has barely started. The fear-mongering and outright lies about the content of the legislation coming from opponents of S.30 is consistent with the behavior of renewable energy developers in our communities.

Town governments and residents of Pittsford, West Rutland, Castleton, Hubbardton, Windham, Grafton, Newark, Brighton and the Unified Towns and Gores are all currently under the threat of big wind developers, being forced to defend their interests against Spanish Iberdrola and German Nordex. These developers are continuing to use a model of community engagement that more closely resembles a stalker than a business partner.

Wind developers and their lobbyists infiltrate communities behind the scenes, working on influential people before making their plans known. Developers and their experts meet with ANR staff in closed-door meetings for years before the public ever hears about a project. Once the application is filed with the PSB, it becomes a full-time job for towns and neighbors raising money, hiring lawyers and experts just to participate in the process.

After the wind projects are built, neighbors must still engage lawyers and experts to address complaints over noise, which all three big wind projects are generating.

Vermont’s PSB and ANR have approved projects with serious long-term issues that require we evaluate both the process and the decisions before we do more. While the major environmental groups support big wind and oppose S.30, that means they are also supporting issuing permits that underestimate stormwater runoff, degrade high elevation Class A1 water resources, allow development in our most sensitive areas above 2,500 feet, kill endangered bats and birds, have noise standards that are not protective of public health, and destroy critical habitat necessary for climate change adaptation.

We can and must do better. It is not necessary to fight over renewable energy development. It is necessary to develop renewable energy in a way that respects our communities and provides a meaningful response to climate change, not just symbolism in the form of giant pinwheels on our mountains.

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  • Well said, Annette.
    You’ve illustrated how exclusionary and pro-industry the process has been until now – people are tired of “old boy network” politics.

    Of course we need to do our part as a state but in a thoughtful way that protects our communities and environment. As many have remarked, energy efficiency, weather-proofing and solar projects promote clean energy and energy savings and are essentially benign.

    It would appear that some care more about our “green” image as reflected in a report by Sandia National Labs, “A Model for the Nation”. The industry has sought to ignore negative impacts in their rush to gain stimulus funds and push VT’s “green” agenda. We have learned upon closer examination that these wind projects exact an enormous toll on affected communities and the environment.

    S.30 will provide some breathing room – to include community participation and facilitate the proper siting of these projects to minimize further destruction of our precious, fragile, natural heritage.
    We must cherish the unique beauty and character of Vermont and it’s people.

  • Sharon Zukowski

    Yes, well said. There is a reason to rush things through. So that the truth is obscured until it is too late to turn back. That is why infomercials work. The Douglas administration pushed for all development to be “streamlined,” mean a cursory environmental review for low-income housing and other projects. (Douglas claimed that permits take 278 days when 2/3 of projects are permitted in 60 days.) Shumlin has the same mindset. Low-income housing or energy projects should not come at the expense of clean water and air or neighborhood character and quality of life. A good thing does not erase a bad thing. A child knows that. Big, new energy projects pushed by companies who have a big stake in them SHOULD go through a long review, because it is hard for local people to fight big money and hard for people who don’t live near the projects to have a voice at all with the adjacent neighbor standards of Act 250, which sometimes doesn’t even apply with energy projects, from what I am newly learning. These are projects that are going to stain the landscape, cause environmental destruction and devalue local property. The public good needs to be clearly shown and it should greatly outweigh the private good. If the benefit is not true, there is no cleaning this up.

  • Alice Allen

    THANK YOU, again, Anne for always bringing an informed, balanced, well-researched response to light on these frustrating scenarios relating to energy issues! S.30 needs and deserves support from ALL of us!