Tuesday December 18, 2012

WINDHAM -- After months spent fighting a potential wind-power project, officials from the town of Windham have a few thoughts on energy generation in Vermont.

Their conclusion: The public has been pushed aside in a permitting process that increasingly is weighted toward big developers.

A Windham representative lodged that complaint and offered solutions during recent testimony before the governor's Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission.

Energy permitting "is now being driven in Vermont by a frenzy of development activity that can only be compared to oil-field wildcatting or gold-rush prospecting," Heath Boyer told the commission. "The public is now cast in the role of annoying third party to the dialogue between developers and regulators."

Heath Boyer is a volunteer assistant to Windham's Selectboard and Planning Commission. Both of those bodies oppose an application from Atlantic Wind LLC to place two meteorological-testing towers in Windham and another in Grafton.

Those towers, depending on the data they produce, could be the precursor to Windham County's first commercial wind-turbine site.

And they have been the subject of intense debate. Officials in Windham, where the town plan prohibits commercial wind development, have asked the state Public Service Board to deny Atlantic Wind's application.

But the company -- a subsidiary of wind giant Iberdrola Renewables -- has argued that town plans don't control the process. Also, Atlantic Wind points out that it has not proposed construction of any turbines.

While the Public Service Board has not yet ruled on the matter, the state Department of Public Service has sided with Windham's plan.

However, the process -- along with a previous encounter with a wind-power developer -- has left town officials concerned about the public's voice in energy permitting.

That's a matter that the energy-siting commission is considering. Windham was invited to appear before the commission Dec. 6 in Montpelier.

"We often risk being called NIMBYs or ‘against everything,' but I would suggest that we are not so much against anything as we are deeply committed to getting it as right as we can get it," Boyer said in remarks that subsequently were submitted to the Reformer.

"The real-world costs and the opportunity costs are too great to do otherwise," he said. "This commission may be our best hope for better tools to get it right."

Boyer pointed to deregulation of utilities as a transformative moment for permitting in Vermont -- and not in a good way.

Previously, "the cases for new generation always began with a demonstrated need," Boyer said. "Some utilities felt the process was needlessly arduous and meticulous, but it was the system imposed on them in return for the convenience of operating as monopolies as long as they fulfilled the necessities of availability, quality and affordability of service."

But today, the process is driven by "private interests and extravagant tax and financial incentives," Boyer argued.

"In essence, a single landowner with a good location in partnership with a developer with deep pockets can change the landscape of an entire region," he said. "To the extent detailed energy planning plays a role in these cases so far, it appears to be a minor one."

Windham is lobbying for a "re-rebalancing of our system to restore some level of expert advocacy to the public side of the debate."

Boyer proposed a new protocol in which "all new utility-scaled generation is examined against expert considerations" including statewide demand, reliability, stability and alternatives.

The state also should take a "science-based" look at renewable energy to determine which technologies are best for Vermont and most effective in reducing carbon emissions, Windham officials said.

Specifically, they cast doubt on wind power and said they support a moratorium on wind development.

"Large-scale wind-energy systems are a relatively recent development," Boyer told the siting commission. "In this country and around the world, there is an emerging body of independent and science-based information about the possible shortcomings and negative consequences of this technology."

Boyer's wife, Mary, chairs Windham's Selectboard and said she has attended each meeting of the siting commission. She is hoping Windham's comments lead to "a much broader conversation in the state about the role of renewables -- the need for them, and what renewables fit in Vermont's culture."

Heath Boyer told the commission that, far too often, such questions are dismissed.

"Today it is largely the public -- the small-town officials, the volunteers, the activists, the people with no budgets except what they can scrounge -- who are trying to get attention to these issues," he said. "Because it has been ‘only' the public, the annoying public, the issues often seem not to have been taken with the seriousness they deserve."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.