Deal struck on solar siting requirements

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell of Windsor County addresses the members on opening day. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

Towns and solar energy developers have reached a temporary compromise over how to better locate solar energy projects across the state.

The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously approved an amendment to the state’s renewable energy bill, H.40, that puts in place statewide solar setback guidelines and requires regulators to consider local screening standards when permitting solar arrays.

Developers and towns say it was a compromise. Developers prefer no restrictions on where projects can be built. The group that represents municipalities prefers more comprehensive changes to the siting process, but says the statewide setbacks are better than nothing this session.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, drafted the amendment. He said his constituents are concerned about certain solar projects that disregard aesthetic impacts.

Campbell said he believed more solar projects should be built in Vermont, but towns should have a say in how they are built.

“A few people who are not good stewards of the land could ruin it for the entire industry,” he said.

The provision creates minimum setback requirements across the state. Towns could work with developers to reduce the setback size and projects must also meet local screening requirements.

The bill includes safeguards to prevent towns from blocking solar developments. The local screening requirements cannot prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting development, according to the bill. The Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial regulatory body, would consider these restrictions when reviewing energy project permits.

Earlier this week, it was unclear whether the House would support the Senate Natural Resources and Energy version of the renewable energy bill with local setback and screening restrictions. Developers, environmentalists and the Shumlin administration opposed the provision that passed out of committee. The amendment passed Wednesday would replace the local setback provision.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said his panel is likely to concur with the changes to the House version.

Gabrielle Stebbins, the executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, said the statewide setback provision creates some certainty for developers. But she said the screening requirements, which include planting hedgerows to limit the view of projects, will increase costs.

Stebbins did not know what effect that might have on the rate of solar energy development or whether it would be better for the industry than current law.

“We’ll have to see,” she said. “I think if it addresses some of the town’s concerns, it could be.”

Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, preferred more comprehensive siting legislation that would give towns a stronger say in the state’s Section 248 permit process.

“But barring that, which I don’t think is going to happen this year, we support establishing some setback standards that the Public Service Board will have to follow,” she said.

She said hopes the issue will be taken up again next year.

Annette Smith, executive director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which represents neighbors in permitting processes, does not believe the bill addressed the issue of siting.

“This solar siting legislation is all for show, to say they have done something. In most cases it is useless. In some cases it is more harmful than the current situation, as it blesses ridiculously small setbacks,” she said.

The bill includes setbacks from property lines ranging from 25 to 100 feet for projects larger than 15 kilowatts. Setbacks from municipal and state roads range from 40 to 100 feet.

The provision would be added to the renewable energy bill, known as RESET, that puts in place mandatory renewable energy targets for the state’s utilities. Most utilities will be required to purchase renewable electricity from wind, solar and other renewable energy projects in Vermont.

Darren Springer, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said 50 megawatts of solar were built in Vermont last year. He said the bill would require a steady deployment of 25 megawatts per year as the program ramps up.

Springer supports the latest amendment. He said he did not know whether it would slow down development.

Klein has been clear that he will not support a provision that was an “obvious stop to solar development.” He said the Senate’s proposal will likely increase the rate of development in Vermont because it will reduce local opposition.

“If there are less reasons for people to object, that speeds up development,” he said.

He said he does not have any issues with solar development. He said he has not heard any concerns from his constituents in East Montpelier, where solar projects have been built.

Others lawmakers said they hope to take up the issue again next year.

“We ought to have a conversation about what screening is,” said Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden.

The bill also gives towns automatic party status in the Section 248 permitting process. Currently, towns must petition to be a party in the permitting process.

Critics of the state’s current energy project permitting process say the Public Service Board was not designed to make decisions about land use. Some have suggested using Act 250, the state’s land use and development law, to permit projects. Act 250 includes several criteria on environmental impacts and aesthetics.

John Herrick

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  • Peter Yankowski

    The solar industry sheds crocodile tears over a legislative compromise that essentially throws towns and homeowners under the bus in favor of developers.

    As Annette Smith says this legislation is all show.

    In years to come, Vermont will regret that it allowed its “so-called” representatives to bend under the pressure from solar developers and their quest for profits.


  • Annette Smith
  • Keith Stern

    Why not allow billboards to pop up in VT once again? Not as big an eyesore as solar farms and at least more useful a greater percentage of the time. Plus taxpayers don’t have to subsidize them.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Gee, who would have figured that a pie-in-the-sky legislative “mandate” for 90% renewables by 2050 would cause any aesthetic controversies in Vermont? It sure is a big splash of cold water in the face to find out that electricity doesn’t come from a wall socket.
    The big irony with large scale solar in our state that forbids billboards is that we now have hundreds of them, all lined up in neat rows with no advertising message and facing south. It’s still better than lighting our homes with whale oil, isn’t it?

    • Keith Stern

      We do have fossil fuels that provide energy 100% of the time. Sure beats covering our fields with ugly panels that only work around 30% of the time. How much heat is gathered by those panels compared to the open fields?

      • John Baker

        Fossil fueled units don’t provide power 100% of the time either and nearly everyone who posts here (notice I didn’t say 100% of the posters!) misuses capacity factor in their arguments.

        Is there some sort of talking points memo going around that people copy for their posts?

      • Glenn Thompson

        Several sources I looked up shows Capacity Factor of Solar in Vermont to be only 12-15%. They certainly would need to fill in a vast amount of open land to achieve that 90% renewables by 2050 goal. I completely agree with the billboard to solar panel comparison!

        • Annette Smith

          David Blittersdorf told the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee that solar’s capacity factor in Vermont is about 20%, so divide by 5. I would be interested in hearing from others in the business what the latest technology is producing. In 2010 I heard 11%.

          Throughout New England big wind’s capacity factor is about 24%.


    I serve as Vice Chair on the Calais Town Selectboard. Act 248 and 248a is a nightmare for towns who wish to steer and control growth in keeping with the wishes expressed by a town’s and the region’s residents. It is severely weighted in favor of the developers of these new technologies across our landscape. The new breed of Vermont environmentalists, who I term “Urban Environmentalists”, are pushing their urban mindset upon our Vermont communities. These lobbyists who have a near lock on the policy makers in the legislature and the administration have a no holes barred approach to seeing their agenda implemented. Be it large scale in-your-face wind development on our once majestic mountain tops, commercial solar development sprawl across our prime agricultural lands or cell and WIFI transmission towers, our magnanimous legislature has done it’s darndest to ensure local input and control is limited to the extent possible short of an outright ban. How many of these self-annointed “environmentalists” have ever plowed a field, tedded hay, raised and milked a herd of cattle, wilderness camped for a week in a Vermont winter, have had any real direct and deep connection to the Vermont landscape and its wild creatures? How many of these lobbyists and legislators go home to volunteer in their communities to learn what their neighbors across the political spectrum of thought feel about what is being wrought upon our beautiful state? These are tragic times for Vermont, a state that once prided itself on its town meeting form of democracy, including all the voices that make up our wonderful communities. Vermont, sadly, is rapidly becoming like much of the rest of the U.S. with its political leaders bedding down with those with money and power to shut down the voices and say of its people. What will occur with the likely passage of H. 40 is a furthering of this legislature’s and the lobbyist elite agenda to render town’s ability to control and mitigate impacts of commercial, for profit development they define as “green” and good for the planet. I ask that my elected representatives Janet Ancel, Anthony Pollina, Ann Cummings and Bill Doyle show their support for our communities right to decide their town’s future development and vote against the passage of H.40. We need to take back the voice of the Vermonter that has been all but eradicated by those who know better than the rest of us stupid, unwashed, lay Vermont citizens. – John Brabant, Calais Selectboard

  • Congratulations to John Brabant you hit the nail on the head and and said it all, except, I would of added all wind & solar projects would have to go thru Act 250. Then after getting approval under Act 250 then go thru the PSB process…where the project will get speedy approval pretending it to be in the publics interest!


    Thank you John Zampieri. Are you one and the same as the John Zampieri I used to know from back in the days of the Dean adminstration where you would have been the gov’s spokesperson?

  • John brAbant

    Oh John, I had you confused with Glen Gershanic

  • William Hays

    Solar setbacks are a great idea. They should all be set back to the east, in New Hampshire. They would blend in with the billboards across the Connecticut River.

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