New Haven pioneers with energy plan: Among first to try for ‘substantial deference’

NEW HAVEN — Perhaps nowhere in Vermont has siting of solar power arrays generated as much controversy as in New Haven.
The town’s sweeping open fields and hosting of a substation that feeds into VELCO’s high-voltage transmission lines (the ones that move energy across towns, states and regions) have made it a magnet for commercial solar power development. Large solar arrays now stand in some fields that once hosted cows and crops.
The fact that developers could get permission from the state utility regulator to site solar arrays without giving the town any real voice created a fair amount of anger and prompted the Legislature last year to approve Act 174. The law gives towns a far stronger position in renewable energy siting procedures before the state utilities regulator.
Towns get this stronger position, called “substantial deference,” by updating their town plans in line with parameters set by the state.
New Haven approved a new town plan this month that includes the necessary updates. It is poised to take a pioneering step that could make it among the first, if not the first, to revise the energy section of its town plan so as to win “substantial deference” before the Public Service Board.
“I don’t know of any other towns as far along as New Haven is,” said Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. “It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but I don’t know about them.”
Gaining “substantial deference” is important, said Lougee, because “it’s supposed to reset the bar regarding the obligation of the Public Service Board to review the town plan. It’s supposed to give the town a lot more voice in the process.”
“Substantial deference” is a new and higher category of consideration of what towns say that they want regarding energy planning and development that came as part of Act 174. The law was the brain child of New Haven Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, who hoped to craft something like an Act 250 process for solar and renewable energy siting, to give towns more voice while also helping to bring about Vermont’s shift toward sustainable energy.
The pace of solar development, loss of open space and the sense of having no voice in the Public Service Board’s granting of Certificates of Public Good have left residents of New Haven and many other Vermont towns divided on how best to embrace energy sustainability.
The proliferation of renewable energy in New Haven can be spotted at a glance, looking at Green Mountain Power’s solar map. Compared to most of the GMP service area (approximately 75 percent of the state), New Haven (along with many other Addison County communities) is a tangle of red amidst a sea of green — red showing distribution lines that are rated as having “poor” or little to no capacity; green for “good” or having plenty of available capacity.
According to the new town plan, “New Haven is ranked second in the state for the quantity of ground-mounted solar electric generation facilities.” The 33 sites in town produce 5,620,134 kWh of solar power each year. And each year New Haven already produces 15,558,572 kilowatt hours — three times the electricity that it uses (see chart).
Because New Haven is blazing what is still a very new path toward seeking “substantial deference,” the process has come with its own challenges.
For example, New Haven developed its energy plan at the same time as the Department of Public Service was developing its energy-compliance standards. Those standards were finalized last November. The DPS’s guidance document for towns was finalized earlier this month. And an additional document to help towns analyze energy use and create strategies to meet state goals will come out at the end of April.
“It’s a learning curve for everybody,” said New Haven Town Clerk Pam Kingman.
Directly after residents approved the updated New Haven Town Plan on March 7, Kingman sent the newly approved town plan to the regional planning commission for its review, which is standard procedure. But because the whole procedure is so new, it took some phone calls and email exchanges to ascertain whether the plan was to go to the RPC and to the Department of Public Service concurrently.
The New Haven Town Plan will likely go to the DPS for what’s called “energy compliance review” in June, possibly late May, said Lougee, after it completes the regional review process.
Once at the DPS, the town’s energy plan will be subjected to a 60-day compliance review, complete with public hearing. To be deemed compliant, a plan must document how it meets a detailed checklist of standards, goals and analyses.
The three important components of documenting compliance are analysis, pathways and mapping:
•  Towns must analyze their current energy “resources, needs, scarcities, costs and problems” in regards to electricity, heating and transportation.
•  Towns must provide strategies (pathways) for meeting the state’s renewable energy goals  in terms of electricity, heating and transportation.
•  Towns must map potential areas for the development and siting of renewable energy and map those places they believe should be off limits.
In addressing these three components within the three energy sectors (again electricity, heating, transportation) towns must address a number of individual issues, including:
•  How the town itself will provide leadership in energy efficiency and using renewables (such as having a more energy efficient town office).
•  How the plan encourages and supports greater energy efficiency and conservation measures.
•  How the plan will reduce transportation energy demand.
•  How the town’s land-development rules and general policies will encourage greater energy efficiencies.
•  How the town plans to encourage conversion to alternative fuels, as well as the current use and development of alternative fuels townwide.
New Haven’s new town plan, for example, explains that the town office provides “leadership to the community by using geothermal heat.” The town office, town hall, school and library reduce transportation energy use by being clustered close together. And the town wants to encourage energy generated from biomethane, to benefit both its renewable energy goals and its agricultural economy.
Overall, the plan sets out the many ways New Haven is already meeting the state’s energy goals, details how it will take additional steps to advance those goals, and sets the balancing goal of protecting the town’s agricultural land, open space and wild land and its historic character.
“I think we have a very comprehensive energy plan, not just solar but energy in general, and that it will protect the townspeople and maintain the agricultural sense of the town,” said New Haven selectboard Chair Kathy Barrett.
Though submission to Public Service Commissioner June Tierney is still a few months off, Lougee notes that other towns will be watching New Haven’s progress in its quest for “substantial deference.”
“It is important for towns,” said Lougee. “We are very interested to see how the Public Service Department reacts to New Haven’s submission and how they go forward in the process. It will certainly allow us to understand how the Public Service Department is interpreting the guidelines that they’ve set out and what they require and what fulfills those requirements.
“So I think we’ll learn a lot from it.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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