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.

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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 When Andrew isn’t writing stories, he can likely be found playing Boggle with his wife, fly fishing or brewing beer.

Email: [email protected]

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  • Randy Koch

    Before this report begins its long and peaceful life gathering dust, a remark on what is missing from it. The commission was formed in the first place to head off grassroots opposition to the crony-driven turbine siting process. The biggest source of citizen outrage was always the essentially anti-democratic PSB process where citizen opponents are always overwhelmed by the huge sums the industry can throw at experts and lawyers. Lawyers such as those at Downs, Rachlin, the law firm where commission chair Jan Eastman’s husband works.

    Thus is is no surprise that the only significant change the commission could have made never saw the light of day: there was no recommendation to even the playing field before the PSB by funding citizen parties. Surprise, surprise. Why would Jan Eastman want to complicate life for her husbands law firm? (There is a bit of weasel language calling for funding for Regional Planning Commissions, but only if, if, if, and if.)

    The fact is that the PSB, Adm, the industry establishment, and the big environmental groups will continue to form a solid wall. This wall almost completely shuts out democratic participation even though these decisions hugely affect us all.

    • Randy Koch

      Not necessarily.

      Downs Rachlin sells itself as an ace energy firm and lists among its “Accomplishments and Successes” the fact that it has “obtained siting approval” for Georgia Mountain, etc, etc, etc: just check out their web site. They also tout John Marshall, Eastman’s husband, as a recognized specialist in energy law. The firm needs a record of demonstrable victories, not just to pile up billable hours. Citizen intervenors might mess up that record.

      In any case, it’s deceptive for chair Eastman to have taken the post and not to have revealed such a clear conflict of interest. Even if it turns out that her family does not directly benefit from her work on the commission, the public should be aware that her points of view will have inevitably been influenced by her close relationship with a Downs, Rachlin heavy hitter.

  • Barry Kade

    I have not yet read the report. I’m wondering if there is space for discussion of what size projects are appropriate for Vermont. Or, is it assumed that bigger is better and more efficient, therefore inevitable, with siting the only issue?

  • Joyce Travers

    I have to wonder why this is still even being discussed. The power companies are not allowing the energy created by the wind turbines to ever reach the grid. If the power currently being generated has no where to go – why are we still considering installing turbines? It amazes me that this wasn’t worked out ahead of time with the power companies before the existing towers were built and ridgelines destroyed. Perhaps the only way alternative power will ever work is if it is done on a smaller scale and barely involves the power companies. I think the only way we can be successful at lowering our personal cost is to go solar on an individual basis. They (energy companies) stand to lose too much money on cheaper alternative energy and are going to come up with a million excuses why it can’t enter the grid.

  • Eric Robichaud

    As long as these monstrosities are sited in the desolate NEK then I am fine with it. They should encroach no further into Chittenden County where people choose to live.

    • Eric,

      If there were only wind enough to turn the 373-ft diameter rotors of the noise-making “monstrosities”.

      About 30% of the hours of the year, there is not enough wind (7.5 mph) to turn the rotors; the wind turbine draws energy FROM the grid.

      During the other hours, most of the wind energy is produced at night.

      The cost of that variable, intermittent wind energy, i.e., junk energy, is more than 3 times grid prices, based on CF = 0.25 or less, similar to Maine and New York State, and life of 17.5 years, similar to the UK and Denmark.

      Less production means higher energy costs/kWh, fewer Renewable Energy Credits to offset costs, and shorter lives means more frequent replacements. All is explained in this article:

      This performance is just as bad as the SPEED program for projects 2.2 MW or less.

      SPEED, at end 2012, after 2.5 years, 0.53% of electrical energy; average energy cost $0.1716/kWh, 3.5 times NE grid prices; 13.87 in 2010, 16.44 in 2011; a rising trend, because PV solar’s percent in the mix (30 c/kWh) is increasing.

      16 states out of 29 with an RPS law are repealing, or watering down, their RPS laws, which were speedily, and without much thought, enacted in part to assuage RE feel-good fervor, and in part to being seen “as fighting global warming and climate change”.

  • Commissioner Recchia states: ” I think the fundamental problem is that we’re trying to figure what our energy plan looks like on the ground,on a project by project basis and its not working”.

    The Commissioner now admits the process is not working, yet only a few weeks ago he was opposed to a moratorium on big wind that would have allowed issues of this nature to be addressed. The moratorium didn’t have to be three years, it could have been a shorter breather to get a better grip on things, but for some reason the powers to be thought any slow down was a bad idea.

    The Commissioner’s pronouncement today does not build much confidence among Vermonters that those in charge have any idea of what they’re doing.

    • Peter,

      The reason it is not working because the ridgeline are top-down projects.

      The people feel as powerless as lambs led to slaughter by a clique of tax-sheltering multi-millionaires fattening their accounts, and bureaucrats playing with other people’s money.

      Germany is going through a major rethinking process regarding the enormous costs of RE. Just google a few sites and you will have plenty of info.

      Please see Stan Shapiro’s comment in this string. He is 100% correct.

      Vermonters ARE being screwed (increasing electric rates in Vermont, decreasing rates in other NE states), and are told by a self-serving coalition of RE folks and allied politicians it is all for the common good, saving the planet, etc., and other such inaneness.

  • Stan Shapiro

    The IWT controversies have exposed the incestuous and nepotistic relationships between public servants, powerful law firms, politicians, and the renewable energy industry in Vermont. That is how things work here. That is what we are. The tensions expressed in Vermont Digger over the past year are a function of that what is usually tight lipped and held close to the vest and rarely articulated has now been publicly argued and debated.
    The unfairness of the powerful has come up against a very indigenous coalition of diverse people who are united in their sense of outrage.This has never really been about a response to climate change.It is about the sharing of the spoils of the PTC. The smartest guys in the room continue to have their day.Local control of IWT projects is really the greatest threat to this because people know at a very fundamental level know when they are being screwed.