Department of Public Service rejects New Haven energy plan

NEW HAVEN — New Haven continues to pioneer in its engagements with renewable energy development.
It is among the first towns to have submitted a hopeful Act 174-compliant energy plan to the Department of Public Service.
Last month, it also became the first town to have its energy plan rejected.
“Of course, we’re disappointed,” said New Haven selectboard Chair Kathy Barrett.
The town must now amend its energy plan and take its entire town plan (including the energy section) back through the full, official town-plan development process.
Signed into law June 2016, Act 174 charts a pathway for towns to receive “substantial deference” (rather that just “due consideration”) in proceedings before the Public Utilities Commission (formerly the Public Service Board). To be deemed “energy compliant” a town must demonstrate that it can meet the state’s energy goals by meeting a series of very specifically defined standards. State goals include:
•  A 75 percent reduction of 1990 greenhouse gas levels by 2050.
•  25 percent of all energy supplied by in-state renewables by 2025.
•  25 percent of homes made energy efficient by 2020.
The series of 14 standards hold towns to specific criteria, such as establishing “2025, 2035 and 2050 targets for thermal and electric efficiency improvements” or identifying “potential areas for the development and siting of renewable energy resources.”
In essence, applying for energy compliance is a process of rigorously checking off a series of 42 boxes in precise categories (or 33 boxes, depending on a given town’s approach to mapping requirements).
New Haven came up short in four areas where its energy plan lacked required maps and data. According to the detailed response from Public Service Commissioner June Tierney, New Haven failed to meet criteria for standards:
•  5.A: Does the plan estimate current energy use across transportation, heating and electric sectors?
•  5.B: Does the plan establish 2025, 2035 and 2050 targets for thermal and electric efficiency improvements, and use of renewable energy for transportation, heating and electricity?
•  9.B: Does the plan analyze generation potential through the mapping exercise to determine potential from preferred and potentially suitable areas in the municipality?
•  12.A: Does the plan identify potential areas for the development and siting of renewable energy sources (specifically wind and solar), using best available data layers.
For the most part, these omissions happened because New Haven was simply too early out of the gate.
New Haven submitted its proposed plan on May 18. Yet critical information was not available until June 8, when it was distributed to area towns by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.
The data and mapping layers (which help towns do things like locate vernal pools and FEMA floodways and other areas unsuitable for renewable energy development) were developed by a number of experts and sources including the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, the Vermont Center for Geographic Information, Long Range Energy Alternatives Planning, the American Community Survey, Efficiency Vermont, and the Vermont departments of Labor and Public Service and the Vermont Agency of Transportation. As part of that process, the regional planning commission created detailed spreadsheets, crunching numbers and making the required projections for each town. But New Haven went ahead before the required data and maps were available.
“New Haven didn’t follow all the step-by-step rules,” said Kevin Behm, assistant director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. “So Tierney was kind of between a rock and a hard place because she can’t say, ‘You were close.’ She can’t give partial credit. I think she understood the problems New Haven is having. But … the DPS really had no choice but to let them go and say ‘We can’t confirm you at this point.’”
Behm also explained that the energy-compliance process will likely be daunting for many towns because it’s new and different. Unlike municipal town plans, which are more of a visionary document, the new energy plan requirements are stringent.
“There’s a lot of required ‘shalls’ and processes that have to be stepped through piece by piece.”
Barrett explained that in its decision to prepare and submit its energy plan, New Haven faced a series of difficult circumstances. The town plan expired in March 2016, leaving New Haven without a town plan to make its wishes known in any Act 250 proceedings. The Act 174 rules are set up so that any energy plan submitted to the DPS for a determination of “energy compliance” and the resulting “substantial deference” must be part of a town plan. Energy plans can’t be submitted as a standalone to the DPS.
Moreover, New Haven wanted to have its town plan (complete with energy section) on the March 2017 town meeting ballot, to get as much voter engagement as possible, said Barrett.
Given these motivations for moving ahead, New Haven also had to contend with the lengthy and ever-shifting regulation process that follows any piece of state legislation. Once a law passes, there’s still a distance to be covered to set down the brass tacks. Thus New Haven developed its plan in the summer and fall of 2016, at the same time as a statewide committee hammered out the standards New Haven was trying to meet.
“It really was a process that was being rolled out and not everything was in sync yet, which created a problem for people,” said Behm. “New Haven wanted to be first out of the gate.”
In her 17-page, detailed analysis of why the DPS turned down New Haven, Commissioner Tierney not only praised the town for its efforts but demonstrated a willingness to hear many of New Haven’s main grievances.
Said Tierney: New Haven “articulates very compelling cause for concern about any future proposals for siting additional solar generation facilities in New Haven beyond ‘distributed generation that serves local residents with on-site electric use.’” She also assured the town that the Public Utilities Commission would keep “firmly in mind” the constraints on the “present distribution system” is making future decisions. Most of the electrical distribution lines in New Haven (as with much of Addison County) are now rated red for “poor,” because they are at or close to carrying capacity.
Tierney also observed that “New Haven has made a compelling point that the planning vision of Act 174 can be an awkward fit for some towns, such as one that generates more electricity than it consumes.”
Tierney gave detailed suggestions for how New Haven could meet the required standards and emphasized “that the department is fully committed to providing New Haven with expedited support and feedback to help the town obtain an affirmative determination for a revised plan.”
Tierney also criticized aspects of the new energy-compliance process itself, noting that the Act 174 process doesn’t allow her any “flexibility to make a conditional affirmative determination.”
She said such flexibility in making Section 4352 determinations would be desirable.
Tierney noted that as DPS commissioner she has no option but to accept or reject a plan.
And once an energy plan is rejected, a town can’t simply go back to the drawing board and demonstrate compliance in the deficient areas. Instead it must put the energy plan (and with it the town plan) back through each and every step of the town plan process itself.
For New Haven, the selectboard has already made policy recommendations covering two of the deficient areas, using the data and maps from the ACRPC. The selectboard will now pass the process along to the New Haven Planning Commission to address the other two deficiencies, Barrett said.
Once all four standards are properly addressed, the entire town plan must move through its series of hearings, and go back and forth from the planning commission to the selectboard to the planning commission, as laid out by state statute and be reapproved by the town before the energy plan can be resubmitted to the Department of Public Service.
“I think that the legislators really need to talk to the people in the trenches when they’re making new laws,” said Barrett. “And this is not just for the solar and the renewable and town plans and all that. They make the laws without regard to how it affects the people who have to enforce the laws or interpret the laws to set standards and regulations.
“They really need to do more talking. They didn’t talk to the towns … No one came to us — there were some people who went to them. It’s just backwards. It’s a top down instead of a bottom up, and that doesn’t feel right. That’s not the Vermont way.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindepend

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