ANR wants more resources to handle increase in renewable energy projects

South Burlington's new twenty-five acre solar farm promises to generate a reported 2.2 megawatts of electricity for the state, enough to power roughly 450 homes. VTDigger file photo

A solar farm in South Burlington. VTDigger file photo

The Agency of Natural Resources says it needs more money to keep up with the growth of renewable energy projects in Vermont. Without hiring new staff, the agency said the process of approving new electric generation facilities could take longer.

Distributed solar, biomass and wind projects have been on the rise in the state. The workload for the agency has increased fourfold as funding and staffing remain stagnant, according to Billy Coster, senior planner and policy analyst for the Agency of Natural Resources.

“The amount of dockets that pertain to generation and siting issues have increased exponentially,” Coster said. “But there have been no additional resources provided to ANR.”

The agency must sign off on the environmental impacts of the energy generation projects as part of the Public Service Board’s Section 248 review process. With only two attorneys and one staffer on the cases, the agency said it struggles to keep up with the board’s schedule.

“We support well-sited renewable energy. And we don’t want to be an impediment to the deployment of well-sited renewable energy,” Coster said. “And without the resources to keep up to our obligations through the permitting process, we might actually slow things down.”

In 2007, the board ruled on two projects greater than 150 kilowatts in size, and in 2013, it ruled on 33 projects, according to the agency.

Renewable energy developers have been coming to the state in large numbers recently, in part due to the financing guarantees offered through the state’s SPEED program, which provides incentives for renewable energy projects so the state can meet its clean-energy goals.

The agency has made recommendations on an energy siting bill, S.201, which includes adding new fees on applications for energy generation projects. Revenue generated from the fees would be divided between the board, the Department of Public Service and the agency. The agency said it wants a larger portion of these fees to add staff.

The bill was voted out of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and is now in the Senate Finance Committee. The bill must pass the committee by the end of the week to be considered, unless it is granted an extension by the Rules Committee. Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, who serves on both committees, said he hopes the bill will come out of Senate Finance by then end of the week.

The bill is designed to give local communities a stronger say in the approval process for energy siting projects. But the bill has drawn strong opposition from environmental groups who say it would stall renewable energy development in the state.

The bill requires the board to issue a certificate of public good that conforms to regional energy plans as long as the projects meet several criteria. Renewable energy advocates caution the change to the board’s review process would allow towns to stop new projects from going forward.

ANR opposes the bill as well, but it raises the opportunity to let lawmakers know the agency is operating on limited resources in a time of increasing workload.

The Public Service Board reviews energy projects though the Section 248 process to determine if the facilities serve the public good, which is in part guided by the state’s renewable energy goals. Some towns hosting the projects want them to conform with regional plans, proponents of the bill say.

The Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission released a report on the issue this summer. Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed the commission last year in response to concerns over industrial-scale wind development.

John Herrick

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