Business & Economy

Vt. Legislature’s push to address concerns about wind power projects sputters, splinters

On Friday, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee agreed to the House’s pared-down version of what was originally a bill regulating large wind turbine projects, including a three-year moratorium.

But although Senate bill 30 is moving forward without any controls on energy siting, some key provisions are still on the table.

Senators folded $75,000 of Public Service Department assessments into the appropriations bill, including those on the potential health and environmental effects of wind generation plants. The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee had voted to strip that key section from the remains of S.30, which entered the session with a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind developments.

In another move, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex Orleans, successfully tacked an amendment onto House bill 39, which has passed the Senate. It has language that would require energy generation applicants to notify local planning commissions of their intent to construct a plant six months prior to a permit request with the Public Service Board. Rodgers wants to give towns more time to consider such applications, in addition to the 45 days prior to an application that applicants must send their construction plans to local commissions.

What’s left of S.30 is a call for six meetings of the House and Senate Natural Resources and Energy committees during the legislative offseason. Lawmakers will be tasked with considering the findings and recommendations of the governor’s siting commission. The commission, which just wrapped up its work, was formed amidst vocal opposition to the siting of wind developments and outcry surrounding the Public Service Board’s permitting process.

What’s not left in the bill is a prohibition against energy generation plants on state lands.

Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee. He said such language might not come back into play this session, but it would be a salient point of conversation during the committees’ meetings.

“How we deal with public lands and protect them … we think we may need some legislative protections on that moving forward,” he said. As for the other issues, “Clearly there are some serious problems with the siting itself and public access (to the permitting process) that we don’t believe is working properly,” he said.

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Checking the record

When Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, told VTDigger the other week that the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation had serious reservations about the public lands language in S.30 — that was true.

When he said, “Nobody, including myself, has ever argued that there should be wind on state land” — that was false.

Two years ago, Klein, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, introduced H.56, which went on to become the 2011 Energy Act. Klein’s initial bill  contained language “requiring the state of Vermont to make its facilities and lands available to the state’s retail electric providers for installation of renewable energy plants,” with some legal exceptions.

That language never passed, but it was apparently proposed in earnest.

“Initially, we were trying to get them to change their policy to accept wind on it,” Klein said on Thursday. “Through the course of discussion in the committee, we accepted the premise that they were operating on.”

The premise that the Department of Forests was and still is “operating on” is an Agency of Natural Resources policy that prohibits “large-scale renewable energy projects” on state parks, forests, wildlife management areas and other agency properties. The 121-foot wind turbine on Burke Mountain in East Burke was exempt from this policy because of its smaller size.

Prohibiting renewables on state lands

The version of S.30 that passed out of the Senate would have established that policy in statute, and been almost the opposite to what Klein introduced in 2011. That Senate version of the bill would have prohibited construction for commercial purposes, including electric power production, on state lands.

Klein’s committee removed this language from the bill due to concerns expressed by the Department of Forests, and the bill passed with overwhelming support in the House, just as Klein’s committee recommended.

Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, was behind the original language that would have created a statute prohibiting such development on state lands, and he wants it back in play.

“The Senate felt it was extremely important to make clear that lands that were set aside in perpetuity for the people of Vermont as parks, wildlife areas or forest land should remain that way without commercial development,” he said.

But the Department of Forests has warned the senator and other legislators since February that the language conflicts with some of its stewardship duties over state land holdings.

Inhibiting the Forest Department?

When Galbraith first introduced the prohibition in Senate bill 21 , an Agency of Natural Resources representative provided testimony, raising concern about the state’s ability to manage forests under such a provision. Despite these concerns, almost identical language to what was in S.21 was then added to S.30.

In fiscal year 2012, the Department of Forests harvested 1.3 million board feet of saw timber and 5,000 cords of wood. The state sold this wood at below market value to local mills and woodworkers to prop up these industries. This generated $365,000 for the state — an amount that Michael Snyder, commissioner of the department, said is not insignificant.

“Logging is a tool that we use to manage forests for health, for sustainability, for habitat enhancement, for aesthetics and for recreational attributes,” he said. “We use the money, and that’s a commercial activity with tremendous benefits to the state.”

Snyder testified to Klein’s committee about this issue, and he took particular issue with language in the Senate version of S.30 that said public lands “are intended to remain in a natural or wild state forever and shall be protected and managed accordingly.”

“In the Green Mountain National Forest they have some designated wilderness, where people are allowed to go in, but you can’t make improvements,” he told VTDigger. “Our lands are not like that. We don’t have wilderness, and we think it’s not appropriate to manage this land as natural and wild. We want to maintain them as healthy, but we encourage human use to allow people to enjoy them. Trails and parks infrastructure, those are not wild.”

Galbraith interprets the version of the bill that passed out of Senate as allowing for such practices. There is a section in the bill that permits structures and roads for forestry purposes and construction for visitors at state parks and forests, he said.

But Klein says he is siding with Snyder, who asserts that the current agency policy is sufficient prohibition on energy projects.

Klein admitted that in recent years he has shifted his stance on renewable energy siting, saying now that he does oppose large-scale wind projects on state lands.

“Let’s be real about this,” he said. “I have moved my position forward. I acknowledge there are problems. I understand communities are being disrupted. And I’m trying to move towards that solution. If you want to hold somebody to whatever they’ve said once in their life can never be changed, I’m guilty.”

Updated at 1:30 p.m. on May 6.

Clarification: Sen. Rodgers’ amendment to H.39 requires energy generation applicants to notify local planning commissions of their intent to construct a plant six months prior to a permit request with the Public Service Board. This measure would be in addition to the 45 days prior to an application that applicants must send their construction plans to local commissions. 

 

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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: [email protected]

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewcstein

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