Town of New Haven gets hearings on solar projects
NEW HAVEN — The state’s utility regulators will give the town of New Haven a voice in their consideration of three separate proposed solar power projects. The town, which boasts open fields and a proximity to a main power transmission line, has been the target for many solar array proposals.
Town officials are glad to get a chance to protect their interests.
“It’s relatively uncommon for the Public Service Board to grant hearings on these petitions,” said Geoff Commons, director of the Public Advocacy Division of the Vermont Public Service Department. “It does happen, but it’s relatively rare.”
The hearings are likely to take place in November, but are not yet on the Public Service Board’s publicly accessible schedule. These are usually posted about 12 days before a hearing date, according to PSB Deputy Clerk Judith Whitney.
These upcoming hearings on three proposed solar projects are not New Haven’s only filings currently before the Public Service Board — the town has submitted to the PSB concerns over at least eight applications currently or recently pending for a Certificate of Public Good to build new solar arrays in the town. But at present three of these are significant enough in the eyes of the PSB to have warranted a hearing.
At issue for New Haven, as for towns across Vermont who have similarly felt unheard on PSB decisions about renewable energy projects — is the town’s ability to regulate development within its borders. While Vermonters see and understand the importance of embracing solar and other renewable energy sources in the battle against climate change — and by law 55 percent of utility sales must be from renewable sources by 2017 — the Certificate of Public Good process has led many to feel that town plans have been trampled and that towns have been disempowered in their ability to make critical land use decisions.
In addition to this overarching concern, the town of New Haven has differing concerns about each of the three installations that range from best use of prime agricultural soils, to the effect on the historic and aesthetic aspects of a given location, to impacts of decommissioning. They also wonder if solar developers might be gaming the system by installing a series of smaller arrays that are subject to less stringent regulation and less scrutiny than a single, larger solar installation would be.
The PSB has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 23 on the proposed 2.2 megawatt (MW) Next Generation Solar project proposed by Waitsfield’s Green Peak Solar to go in along Field Days Road. It has set a tentative date of the week of Nov. 1 for a hearing on the proposed addition of 350 kilowatts — issued as a new and separate Certificate of Public Good — to an existing 150 kW array on Route 7 behind the Vermont State Police barracks.
And the PSB has granted a hearing but set no date for a proposed 150 kW installation on South Street.
Act 56, the renewable energy legislation signed into law by Gov. Shumlin on June 11, includes some changes intended to address towns’ concerns. The law gives all town selectboards and planning commissions “the right to appear as a party in any Section 248 proceedings.” It also stipulates that solar installations must comply with municipal screening requirements and, if greater than 15 kW, be set back 50 feet from property boundaries and 100 feet from the edge of state or municipal highways.
But it’s not yet clear to what extent Act 56 will be effective in addressing towns’ concerns or are just window dressing by a Legislature wanting to appear to be responsive, according to experts interviewed for this article.
For New Haven town attorney Cindy Hill the PSB’s new automatic recognition of towns as “parties” may bring subtle yet potentially powerful changes to the process. Previously, towns had to petition to be recognized as “interveners” in the Certificate of Public Good process and the Public Service Board could limit which of a town’s issues as an intervener it would choose to address. Being automatically recognized as “parties” could help towns present the breadth of their concerns about a particular project.
“The difference may well be subtle in terms of what a nonlegal person might perceive of it,” said Hill. “A statutory party is by law they have a legal vested interest in participation in the process. An intervener is only by permission. So it’s a difference of by right versus by permission. The granting of party status to all towns in these proceedings appears to not limit the issues that a town can raise in the course of that party status, whereas interveners can be limited by the Public Service Board in what they can attest to.
“Basically, an intevener is by the discretion of the Public Service Board and therefore more limited and only subject to their permission, whereas a party means that by law you have a seat at the table.”
One thing Act 56 does not change is the language regarding how the PSB is to weigh a town plan when evaluating a solar generator’s petition for a Certificate of Public Good. The current language of “due consideration” still stands. Section 248 instructs the Public Service Board to give “due consideration” to the “recommendations of the municipal and regional planning commissions, the recommendations of the municipal legislative bodies, and the land conservation measures contained in the plan of any affected municipality.”
To what extent “due consideration” is a meaningful standard depends on which stakeholder you talk to.
Of the eight proposed projects currently pending before the Public Service Board, four are larger than allowed by the town plan: the 350 kW SSE New Haven Solar II near the state police barracks, the 500 kW BDE Lazar Solar on Main Street, the 500 kW New Haven GLC Solar off Route 7, and the 2.2 MW Next Generation installation on Field Days Road.
Among the largest currently operating solar installations in Addison County is the 2.2 MW Cross Pollination project along Route 7 north of New Haven Junction. Cross Pollination, in operation since 2013, is often sited as an example of how the PSB flouts town plans. Yet it is more truly an example of how towns across the state have had to scramble to meet the changing landscape around renewable energy development. Though installed in 2013 — well after the town adopted its 2011 town plan, which limits solar projects to 300 kW — the project won its Certificate of Public Good in accordance with the town plan in effect when it first applied in 2010. In 2010 the New Haven town plan set no size limit on solar development.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].