We have written many times on this page about our support and enthusiasm for the solar energy movement here in Vermont. We were especially proud when a report released earlier this summer showed that Vermont ranks ninth in the nation for per capita solar installations.
That same report, from the Environment America Research & Policy Center in partnership with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, also highlighted several policy changes that would make going solar even easier and more affordable for Vermonters. Among those suggestions: The state should streamline permitting to make it easier to build community-scale systems above 150 kW in size.
Toward that end, the company that wants to build a 2-megawatt solar array on land near Interstate 91 is asking the Public Service Board to approve an expedited decision process that would not include any public hearings.
Winstanley Enterprises, the company that owns the land on Technology Drive in Brattleboro, wants to install about 8,300 solar panels on 1,040 posts in a 15-acre parcel along the highway. If the solar array is installed it would be one of the largest solar arrays in the state.
The company put its application in to the PSB asking that the petition be considered under section (j) of Vermont's 248 permitting process. If the PSB agrees to let the project go ahead under section (j) then there would be no formal hearings held on the proposal.
"The project satisfies the public interest, and has generated much support at the local level," Downs Rachlin Martin Attorney Kimberly Hayden wrote to the PSB. "The project will help the state of Vermont and the town of Brattleboro meet its renewable energy goals. The public interest is furthered by a more efficient processing of this petition through a section 248(j) review."
Let's be absolutely clear: this request to expedite the permitting process does not mean that the town, land abutters and interested parties would have no say in the matter whatsoever. All stakeholders would still be able to send in comments on the proposal.
"They are asking for a truncated process where there is a 45-day review process and they don't have to go through a hearing," said Windham Regional Commission Energy Planner Cullen Meves.
"You can still provide input, there's just a shorter time period, and there's not as much of an evidentiary process," she said. "There's no hearing. There's no testimony given. They just rely on the evidence that's included with the application."
The company already has gone to great lengths to meet with state agencies and town officials to work through any potential concerns in advance of the permitting process.
Winstanley has worked with the Agency of Natural Resources and no wetland permits are needed and there are no threats to wildlife habitats or endangered species. Meves said the Windham Regional Commission's Project Review Committee wanted more information on the fencing that will be installed along the Interstate, and the committee was satisfied with the information it received from Winstanley.
Finally, company representatives also came before the Selectboard in July, and comments from the Selectboard, the Planning Commission, the Energy Committee and the general public were all generally positive and in support of the solar project.
Given the generally positive reaction to the solar project, the company's efforts to address any potential concerns in advance, and the fact that Winstanley hopes to complete construction and begin operations before Dec. 31 to take advantage of tax benefits, we see no reason why the permitting process can't be streamlined in this particular case.