Opinion: Changes needed in siting rules for solar projects
The lower cost of solar PV panels has led to a huge increase in solar projects in Addison County. Unfortunately the current regulatory model to govern the siting of solar projects is based on traditional large centralized power generation, transmission and distribution. This model is not appropriate for small distributed power generation such as solar PV or bio-fuels projects.
Current legislation gives the Public Service Board (PSB) jurisdiction over all utilities except railroads and aircraft and gives them the power to determine what is in the Public Good for Vermont as a whole. This includes gas and electricity manufacturing, transmission and distribution as well as telecommunications.
For gas and electricity utilities, the PSB is directed to give “due consideration to the recommendation of the municipal legislative bodies” when deciding whether to issue a Certificate of Public Good for a given project. Thus the PSB is the arbiter of whether a project is approved and can override local zoning regulations and town plans even if the municipality elects to intervene in what is an expensive and complex process. This model is based on the notion of the public good outweighing the local wishes of the municipality.
But the model is already breaking down for net-metering systems. The PSB and Legislature have tried to cope with the huge numbers of applications by changing the handling of those applications based on size. For systems generating 10kW and less, all that is required is a completed application and 11 days later, barring a complaint by the interconnecting utility, the Certificate of Public Good is issued. For 150kw systems (up to approximately an acre of land), abutters and municipalities have 10 working days to file comments. For systems between 150 kW and 2.2MW some of the Act 248 conditions are waived, most notably 30 V.S.A § 248(b)(4) – Economic Benefit to the State.
For large solar PV projects, the model fits but as projects get smaller and smaller, the PSB has less and less justification for reviewing the projects and so curtails their oversight. Sadly, there is no recognition that this oversight vacuum should be filled by the municipality and/or the regional planning authority.
What is needed is to give municipalities jurisdiction over small distributed power generation in partnership with the PSB and the developer. Following the example of the PSB, for systems below 10kW a municipal building permit should be required. For systems up to 150kW, a conditional use permit should be needed, and for systems above 150kW a conditional use permit and approval by the municipal legislative body should be necessary.
Thus, a small legislative intervention would give citizens and municipalities a say in where projects are built, protecting viewscapes and increasing the transparency of the decision-making process.
Mark A. Nelson of Bristol
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