Energy siting bill could give more local control
ADDISON COUNTY — What could prove to be a landmark bill granting towns greater decision-making power in the siting of renewable energy projects passed unanimously last Friday in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Enhanced local control would be especially appreciated in towns like New Haven, where town officials have expressed frustration over their inability to have a say whether and where solar array developments are sited within their municipal boundaries.
A key provision in Senate bill S.230 allows regional planning commissions to certify town energy plans as being in compliance with state energy goals. Towns with certified energy plans would get more weight when state regulators are deciding whether to OK projects put forward by solar, wind or hydro power developers.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said Vermonters support the state’s goal of achieving 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, but they understandably feel disempowered by the regulator system that has allowed renewable energy projects that towns don’t want.
“We are doing good projects but quite often people in towns don’t feel like they have any connection to it; they may feel like it was imposed on the town,” said Bray, who chairs the Natural Resources and Energy Committee and sponsored S.230.
“Instead,” he emphasized, “it would be a far happier, healthier community if people said, ‘Yeah, we want to do this and here’s how we want to do it.’ Then they would feel like we’re all in this together. We’re working together. And we’re making progress.”
Senate bill S.230 grew out of Act 56, a law passed last year in response to Vermont towns’ belief that renewable energy projects were being foisted upon them. The law created a “Solar Siting Task Force” that took more than two months of testimony from a wide spectrum of stakeholders — from planners and activists to energy experts and renewable energy developers. The bill also responds to years of vocal opposition from towns and citizens, who felt shut out by the Public Service Board’s Section 248 renewable energy permitting process.
The heart of the bill is a process by which regional planning commissions are empowered to develop energy plans that fit the needs of their regions and meet state energy goals. The Department of Public Service would then certify those regional plans, at which point a regional planning commission would then work with its area towns to help each town develop its own town energy plan, with the RPC lending its professionalism and expertise.
Towns with certified energy plans would be given “substantial deference” rather than “due consideration” when a renewable energy project goes before the Public Service Board — a seismic shift in the balance of power before the PSB.
The process has already been piloted by three regional planning commissions — Bennington, Northwest, and Two Rivers-Ottauquechee — working in collaboration with and funded by the Department of Public Service.
Additionally, Bray said, the bill has a kick-start provision, whereby towns can designate a site as a preferred location for renewable development, before developing a certified energy plan. This gives towns a quick action pathway, Bray said, while a town’s certified energy plan is being developed.
Bray said the bill is intended to “anticipate, complement, and harmonize,” meaning that it’s designed to take its place alongside significant energy legislation Acts 99 and 56 and bring local land-use planning more strongly into the state’s energy planning goals and processes.
He hopes that the bill could bring to the siting of renewable energy the same kind of balancing of public goods as the Act 250 process has had on comparable land use and development issues.
Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, was a member of the state Solar Siting Task Force and an expert witness before the Natural Resources and Energy Committee while they were drafting the bill. He said S.230 goes a long way toward giving towns and regions the ability to meet state energy goals on their own terms.
“(S.230) is really looking to strike a balance,” said Lougee. “It’s balancing our desire for renewable energy generation with our desire to retain our local control over our landscapes. This gives us certainly more voice and certainly more ability to take that local control. And I’m hoping that the balance that will be good and work in all cases.”
Along with strengthening the role of towns and regional planning commissions, as described above, key provisions of the bill include:
• Encouraging solar development on “brownfields” rather than “greenfields.” The idea is to provide incentives for putting solar arrays on rooftops and on standing structures, parking lots, landfills, gravel pits and other previously developed areas rather than swallowing up open land and agricultural land.
• Making the Section 248 process more transparent and more accessible. This would be achieved in a number of ways, among them adding customer assistance personnel at the PSB to work with ordinary citizens who want to participate in the permitting process and providing clearer pathways for mediation.
• Giving the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation a guaranteed place at the table before the PSB, so that those agencies can weigh in when they feel it’s appropriate
Lougee said that although the Solar Siting Task Force left much work to be done in terms of developing best practice guidelines for solar siting, he feels that S.230 moves toward this end by empowering RPCs and towns to fulfill the state energy policy through a lens of greater local control.
But not everyone is satisfied with S.230.
Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, views the bill with far more reservations than Lougee. Horn questions whether there will be enough flexibility for towns in meeting state energy policy and the regional energy plan. She also questions whether there will be sufficient resources for towns to meet this new responsibility, given the limited funds and the volunteer nature of the state’s small-town government.
Horn said that there had been some discussion before the NR&E Committee about turning over to towns entirely the process and mechanisms for awarding a Certificate of Public Good for smaller solar projects — one that would generate 15-150 kilowatts of power — but that option didn’t make it into the final legislation.
On Wednesday afternoon, S.230 was before the Senate Finance Committee; from there it will go on to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill must pass through both of these committees by Friday, March 18, to meet the Legislature’s “cross-over deadlines” to be able to then go on to the House, unless lawmakers open up some alternative path.
From the Appropriations Committee, the bill would then go to the full Senate, where it would most likely be debated next week. The next stop would be to go on to the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
Bray said that he and Rep. Anthony Klein, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, have been in ongoing discussion about the bill for several months.
Bray hopes to see the bill pass this year.
“This is on my must-pass list and I think the Senate’s as well,” he said.
To read S.230 go to to this page on the Legislature’s web site. To track daily progress on the bill check the Senate calendar at here. To send comments or concerns to Sen. Chris Bray, email him at [email protected].
See Sen. Chris Bray’s community forum on in the March 17 edition.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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