Siting commission recommends more transparent, inclusive permitting process for energy projects

On Tuesday, the Vermont Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission submitted its final report and recommendations to the governor and the Vermont Legislature. The commission recommends a revision of the Section 248 permitting process.

“Based on the hundreds of documents, expert testimony and public comments received over the past six months related to Vermont’s electric generation siting process, the Commission has concluded that there is a need for the Section 248 process to be revised to address a shift in the size, scope, and pace of proposed projects over the last decade,” the commission wrote. “In particular, the Commission acknowledges the need to move towards a process that is more open, accessible, and inclusive, while also providing greater clarity, predictability, and efficiency.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin formed the five-person siting commission in early October to assess how the state of Vermont permits large energy generation projects.

The order to explore reform came amidst vocal opposition to the siting of wind developments on Vermont ridgelines and outcry surrounding the Public Service Board permitting process, which is viewed by many lawmakers and residents as unfriendly to public participation.

Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Public Service Department, was an “ex officio” member of the commission. The issue with the current permitting process, he said, stems from a disconnect between the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan and the lack of a map for how to achieve its ambitious goals. The plan, which was enacted in 2011, sets the ultimate goal of drawing 90 percent of the state’s total energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service. State of Vermont photo

Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service. State of Vermont photo

“I think the fundamental problem is that we’re trying to figure out what our energy plan looks like on the ground, on a project-by-project basis, and it’s not working,” Recchia said. “It’s partially not working because the Public Service Board is a quasi-judicial court … and the discussion hasn’t occurred on a regional or local planning basis.”

While some towns, like Newark, have adopted language in their town plan to oppose large-scale wind developments, others have not addressed the matter.

In the commission’s report, the first of the group’s five over-arching recommendations is that the state should “increase emphasis on planning at state, regional, and municipal levels, such that siting decisions will be consistent with Regional Planning Commission (RPC) plans.”

The move, Recchia said, would give regional plans more power in the permitting process, but only if they followed the state’s energy plan.

“Right now, all of the town plans and regional plans are given due consideration by the Public Service Board,” he said. “We’re suggesting that if they look at their energy components and update it based on the energy planning of the state, then the town should be given substantial consideration and the region should be given substantial consideration.”

The commission’s other four major recommendations are:

• To require the Public Service Board to use a simplified process for “small or less-controversial projects while focusing the bulk of PSB time and effort on the evaluation of larger or more complex projects.”

• To increase opportunities for public participation “to both inform and address public aspirations and concerns in the electric generation siting process.”

• To make board procedures more transparent and predictable.

• To “update environmental, health, and other protection guidelines.”

Recchia said that he hopes the Legislature passes the House version of S.30, which calls for the Senate and House Natural Resources and Energy committees to meet up to six times in the legislative off-season. He wants the lawmakers to review and analyze the 100-plus page report, so that they are ready to craft policy next session.

“The commission did a tremendous amount of work,” Recchia said. “There are 28 recommendations. Twelve of them require legislative action. Fourteen of them are things we can start doing right away, with no additional authority or money, and a few of them require funding.”

Not everyone, however, is as gung-ho as Recchia about the report. Annette Smith, who is the director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, is staunchly opposed to wind turbine developments along Vermont ridgelines.

Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. Photo by Anne Galloway

Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. Photo by Anne Galloway

She takes issue with two pages (100-101) of materials from the trade organization Renewable Energy Vermont, calling it “propaganda,” and she said the commission did not address a number of pressing issues.

“The siting commission failed to address the problem of the imbalance between wealthy developers with access to gobs of money, while towns and neighbors have zero resources except to pull dollars out of their own pockets,” she said, adding that the commission is recommending a “top down approach (that) flies in the face of the cries by towns and citizens to have more say in what goes on.”

Gabriell Stebbins, director of Renewable Energy Vermont, praised the report, in part, but she also voiced concern.

“While there is a strong potential role for regional planning commissions (RPCs) in recommending regional approaches to meeting Vermont’s energy challenges and goals, it should be recognized that RPCs, even by their own account, neither have the staffing resources nor the expertise to be energy siting experts,” she said. “They should not be put in this role. An over-reliant approach on these unelected bodies threatens Vermont’s ability to meet its future energy challenges and continue to grow its clean energy economy.”

She is also bothered by a proposed permitting structure for projects larger than 500 kilowatts, which is “more complicated, unnecessarily increasing costs and making Vermont’s transition to an efficient, renewable energy future the more challenging,” as she put it.

Many of groups that reached out to VTDigger about this report, however, were in favor of its recommendations.

Will Wiquist, director of the Green Mountain Club, told VPR last year that he thought wind turbine projects should abide by criteria in Act 250, the state’s governing land-use law. After reading the new report, he expressed great optimism.

“As the General Assembly-designated protectors of the Long Trail, the Green Mountain Club wholly supports the commission’s recommendation that state policies consider the cumulative impacts of multiple projects,” he said in a public statement. “It only makes sense that large development not be considered in isolation. Likewise, ‘substantial consideration’ of the criteria in Act 250 would be a step in the right direction.”

Brian Shupe, director of Vermont Natural Resources Council, also lauded the report.

“The commission’s recommendations provide a solid framework to begin refining our approach to energy siting, allowing us respond to some valid issues while maintaining our commitment to bringing more renewables online,” he said.

To read the final report, click here.

The governor’s siting commission was comprised of:

• Scott Johnstone, executive director of Vermont Energy Investment Corp. and former secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
• Gaye Symington, former Speaker of the Vermont House.
• Louise McCarren, first female chair of the Vermont Public Service Board.
• Jan Eastman, former president of the Snelling Center for Government.
• Tom Bodett, Dummerston selectman and panelist on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” quiz show.

Clarification: Jim Matteau, former director of the Windham Regional Commission, was originally appointed to the commission. After Hurricane Sandy, Matteau left to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Tom Bodett replaced him. Also, Jan Eastman chaired the board, Commissioner Chris Recchia was simply an ex officio member.

Updated at 11:12 on May 1, 2013.

Andrew Stein

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