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.