Solar siting debated at Legislative Breakfast

MIDDLEBURY — A proposed new solar siting law continues to be the top legislative talking point among Addison County residents, many of whom have seen a substantial surge in the number of renewable energy projects in their communities.
That new law, S.230, again dominated discussion at the weekly legislative breakfast, held this past Monday at the Middlebury American Legion hall. Bill S.230 encourages communities to develop energy sections within their respective town plans that specify their solar siting priorities and specific locations within their borders where renewable energy projects could be sited.
Those municipal energy plans would ultimately have to pass muster with the Vermont Department of Public Service and be deemed compatible with the state’s green energy priorities.
As it stands, the state utilities regulator (the Public Service Board, or PSB) gives town plans “due consideration” when evaluating renewable energy project applications, according to Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven. Under S.230, the PSB would give “substantial deference” to towns’ certified energy plans that dovetail with the state’s renewable energy objectives.
S.230 is currently in the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee.
“I am sure they are going to take it up immediately,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury. Sheldon will be able to weigh in on the legislation as a member of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
Praised by some as a good compromise, the bill continues to draw criticism from some town officials and residents who believe the measure does not go far enough in protection towns’ and property owners’ interests.
New Haven resident Jon Cristiano said the Vermont Public Service Board has given his town little reason to trust it in the solar siting process going forward. He said officials representing the PSB met with New Haven officials at a local church last fall to talk about solar siting.
“The said they would analyze all this information and our concerns and get back to us,” Christiano said. “That never happened, and I don’t expect it ever will happen.
“This is just one more instance, in my opinion, of government agencies and personnel sweeping the concerns of the voters under the table and into the trash bin,” he added.
Bray said he would ask PSB officials about the alleged lapse in communication with New Haven over solar siting. In the meantime, he said S.230 — if signed into law — should help give communities more of a say in the solar siting controversy.
“The major point of S.230 is it gives Vermonters, towns and regional planning commissions a far greater voice in how we move from fossil fuels generation to clean, renewable fuels,” Bray said. “It’s a transformation that’s going to be going on for decades. Towns have said loudly that they’d like to have a greater voice. The path that this bill proposes is to bring towns into the planning process, as opposed to the state making a plan for the entire state and not engaging regions and towns in figuring out that picture.”
It is to the advantage of both the state and the towns to collaborate on solar siting, according to Bray.
“This is, to me, one of those cases where ‘failing to plan is planning to fail,’” Bray said.
Former Democratic State Rep. Paul Ralston of Middlebury said at the breakfast that lawmakers must deal with what he believes are some significant flaws in Vermont’s renewable energy policy. It is a policy, he said, that exports too many Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) out of state.
“This imbalance, I believe, is at the root of the discontent of Vermonters — in the (Northeast) Kingdom, around wind, and in Addison County, around solar,” he said. “In order to really evaluate who is making the sacrifice, and for whom, you must look at the RECs portion of the energy program.”
Ralston called RECs an artificial credit that is stripped away from the energy and sold separately.
“Right now, the vast majority of Vermont renewable energy projects are selling their RECs, and they are selling them out of state,” Ralston said. “What this means, is that legally, the energy being produced no longer can be called renewable.”
In essence, Ralston said, the profit is stripped away from the renewable energy electrons and sold to other utilities — primarily in Massachusetts and Connecticut — “so that they don’t have to build out renewables and so that they can continue to burn natural gas for their electricity and so that they can continue to produce nuclear energy.”
So Vermonters, according to Ralston, are being asked to sacrifice so that Massachusetts can meet its renewable energy goals.
“We’re being used — mined — for our very last, easy renewable energy laws, and our very profitable renewable energy laws,” Ralston said.
Instead, Ralston said Vermont should keep its RECs in-state, so that Vermonters know that the aesthetic and/or noise inconveniences of local green energy projects are at least benefitting their state.
“This disconnect is what’s at the root of the problem,” Ralston said. “Siting, alone, is not the solution.”
Bridport resident Bob Zeliff disagreed with Ralston.
“I believe the origins of Renewable Energy Credits were put into place to have ‘old’ energy help finance ‘new’ energy,” Zeliff said. “Old energy (utilities) would buy credits from the new technology, so they would be subsidizing the new solar, or the new wind, so that the old fossil fuels would become more expensive. So it’s a process of de-incentivizing the older fossil fuels and incentivizing the new, renewables. So it’s not ‘us versus them.’”
Bray noted the Legislature last year passed Act 56, which creates a “renewable portfolio standard” in Vermont, so RECs will be retained in Vermont beginning on Jan. 1, 2017. And, on that same date, the state’s Act 99 will bring changes in the manner in which RECs are handled and paid for, according to Bray.
Addison farmer Paul Boivin noted solar arrays have emerged as an economic opportunity for those in agriculture.
“Most of (the arrays) get sited on farmland, and farmers, interestingly, have an opportunity to glean anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per acre for most of these solar arrays,” Boivin said. That kind of revenue is too much for some farmers to refuse, given the low prices now being paid for many crops, he said.
“The farmer pays his taxes, maintains the land, takes care of it, and everybody wants the view free of charge,” Boivin said. “The thing is… if you like the view the way it is, you’ve either got to pay for it, or let (the farmer) do what he needs to do on his property.”
Other discussion at Monday’s legislative breakfast focused on:
• Wastewater disposal regulations. Boivin said he believes a double standard exists between the country and urban areas, when it comes to wastewater disposal systems. He said folks in rural areas with inhospitable soils have to spend $40,000 to $60,000 for a mound system.
“You can’t do anything with any lot unless you have a working septic system,” Boivin said.
But he contended that faulty septic systems are given a pass in urban areas, in the interest of preserving jobs and economic development.
“I read in the paper time and time again you’ve got almost every city in Vermont has development going on,” Boivin said. “They build more houses and they still have poop going directly into the rivers and streams. Why is it in the country, we can’t do anything with that lot when there is no ability to handle the septic, but in the cities, they are not handling the septic (properly) right now and they are still allowing more development, more creation of jobs and more pollution… ”
But Bray said he believes urban areas are coming under increased scrutiny for wastewater disposal. He noted last year’s Clean Water Act, which acknowledges the role that municipal wastewater treatment plants play in discharging phosphorous and impurities into the state’s waterways.
“We have wastewater treatment plants around the state that need upgrading,” Bray said. “The biggest challenge we have ahead of us is that significant wastewater treatment plants and storm sewer investments are really going to be needed in big cities and small.”
And Sheldon noted the House recently passed a bill (H674) that requires wastewater treatment plant operators to notify the Agency of Natural Resources and local health officers — within defined time limits — of combined sewer overflows; overflows from sanitary sewers and combined sewer systems; upsets or bypasses around or within the wastewater treatment facility during dry or wet weather conditions; and discharges of domestic, commercial, or industrial wastewater from the wastewater treatment facility to separate storm sewer systems.
“That is a way of bringing awareness to the issue to build interest and political will to address the very extensive problems that we do need to address.” Sheldon said. “When there is a combined sewer overflow, the fact is it also indicates the storm water is being treated at many of the lower-flow storms. That is a huge step forward. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with the overflows — we absolutely do — and we need to fid creative ways to do it.”
• Marijuana legalization. The House Judiciary Committee on April 8 voted 6-5 to gut a Senate-passed measure (S.241) that would have allowed adults to legally possess up to an ounce of recreational marijuana. The panel instead passed a bill that would create a commission to study the eventual legalization of marijuana. It would also lower Vermont’s legal blood-alcohol content limit from the current 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent in cases where a driver has also been using marijuana.
Dave Silberman, a Middlebury-based attorney and supporter of legalization, noted the Judiciary Committee also rejected a measure that would have reduced criminal penalties for possession. The bill, according to Silberman, would have reduced the current penalty for growing 25 or more pot plants, which currently stands at 15 years. That’s the same penalty that the state currently applies to manslaughter, according to Silberman.
He asked  Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury — a member of the judiciary Committee — why she voted against the bill that proposed to reduce pot-related penalties.
“I’m struggling to understand why you might think growing 25 marijuana plants is as dangerous to our society as manslaughter,” he said to Nuovo.
Nuovo said she and her colleagues had not had enough time to review what she called “a brand new bill” that she had only seen that morning. Nuovo has long been on the record as opposing marijuana legalization.
She referred to testimony from law enforcement and health care professionals that she said raises concerns about the impact pot use can have on traffic safety and the brain development in young adults.
“I am not ready to vote for it,” she said of marijuana legislation.
Still, the House Judiciary bill still allows House and Senate conferees to negotiate new language that could still result in the legalization of recreational pot. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he would sign such a bill.
• Act 46. The new school governance unification law is being implemented in the Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast. Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union voters on Tuesday fielded a unification question on Tuesday (see related story), and Addison Northeast is currently preparing for such a vote.
While the measure passed comfortably in the ACSU this past March, some residents are concerned about the upcoming transition to a single board overseeing a single education budget. Salisbury resident Heidi Willis said she’s worried that unification will become another setback for town meeting participation in her community. Salisbury has voted on its elementary school budget from the floor at its annual meeting. Now a global Addison Central School District budget will be voted by Australian ballot.
“I feel we will lose town meeting,” Willis said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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