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Carbon tax, solar arrays spur debate

WEYBRIDGE — At the legislative breakfast at the Congregational Church of Weybridge on Monday, lawmakers discussed the future of education reform in Vermont (see story, here).
Other discussion at Monday’s breakfast focused on:
•  The notion of a carbon tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels and create more capital for individuals, businesses and the state to invest in renewable energy. The Legislature has been discussing some carbon tax bills, but they have not been gaining much traction at the Statehouse.
Weybridge resident Spence Putnam encouraged lawmakers not to abandon the issue, and that it not be portrayed as an “added tax.”
“By putting a price (on fossil fuels), it could actually stimulate our economy,” Putnam said. “The reason it does that is, 75 cents to 80 cents of every dollar we spend on fuel oil and gasoline goes out of our state, or even out of the country. The more of those dollars we keep in the state, the more jobs we’ll create here in alternative energy and in weatherization.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said supporters should not get their hopes up for a carbon tax — at least not during the 2015 session.
“If I had to place a bet … I would probably say this is not going to occur this year,” Lanpher said. “There are so many other things going on, and we have only got a few weeks left with some pretty heavy lifting already. But I think it is a really good thing to start having the conversation.”
•  The proliferation of solar arrays, particularly in Addison County.
Eric McFerran of Middlebury, a former tourism industry worker, voiced his concern about the number of solar arrays he has seen pop up on the local countryside.
“I’m starting to see more solar panels than cows in Vermont,” he said. “I’m sort of concerned about the long-term future of tourism here, and am wondering if our legislators have a long-term view of what is going to happen.”
McFerran added he’s concerned about the diligent removal of the solar arrays once they have exceeded their lifespan.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, acknowledged the recent spike in solar projects. He also noted that the Vermont Public Service Board may review local planning and zoning rules — but doesn’t have to defer to those local rules — when assessing a solar project application. With that in mind, Bray has called for the formation of a “working group” to recommend ways of improving the regulatory review process. Those recommendations would form the basis for legislation that would be introduced next January.
The “working group” initiative will be included as an amendment to the energy bill the Legislature will field before the end of this session, he said.
“We are finding more and more people concerned about seeing (solar arrays),” said Bray, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee. “I think where we’re headed is to look for a new balance between Montpelier issuing Certificates of Public Good that allow arrays to be built everywhere and towns and town planning that says, ‘We would like to have some influence over where they are sited, how they are screened, and things like that.’”
Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, is a member of the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee. She noted Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, and others filed several bills early in the session aimed at giving communities more say in how solar energy projects are evaluated and permitted. Those various bills are currently being consolidated into a committee bill, according to Sheldon.
“They are coming up with the best ideas from all the bills,” Sheldon said. “If you have a thought, please bring it to us.”
“So many people are concerned about what the Public Service Board is doing,” Nuovo added.
•  The proposed phase-out of state support for Vermont Public Television within the next two years. The House Appropriations Committee has proposed maintaining funding at $280,000 for VPT this year and next, but after that the station would be on its own, Lanpher explained.
Lanpher said the VPT cut is one of many tough choices her committee had to recommend in view of what had been a $113 million revenue shortfall forecast for fiscal year 2016. Other tough choices, she said, included closing the veterans’ home to save $5 million, and cutting by one-third funding for a summer camp for blind children. At the same time, Lanpher said the committee was able to hold harmless the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and the Vermont Council on Women.
•  The water quality bill. Bray said the House and Senate have both been working on water quality bills designed to protect Lake Champlain and the other state waterways from phosphorous runoff and other pollutants. The plan is to take the best ideas from both and vote out legislation that would then go to conference committee.

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