"Let's talk about wind ... and biomass and solar and hydro." So said Rep. Tony Klein at a recent joint legislative energy committee meeting. After hearing the recommendations of the Governor's Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, Rep. Klein asked whether we are asking the right question. Is the issue the siting process, or is it the specific technologies?
The answer is both. The siting process (the Public Service Board Section 248 process) and the specific renewable energy technologies being deployed are both in need of review and re-evaluation.
The Commission's discussions were limited by their charge to look only at new electric generation, including fossil fuels such as a natural gas plant. In their numerous all-day deliberations, Commissioners danced around talking about specific technologies, and focused on the process through which electricity generation is sited.
At the joint energy committee's recent all-day meeting, legislators were thankfully open to hearing about the issues of "now" -- already sited generation projects -- plus transmission lines, pipelines, energy efficiency and non-electricity energy developments that have been dominating some people's lives as society seeks to develop yet more energy infrastracture (a/k/a energy sprawl).
Towns and members of the public dealing with wind, biomass and solar renewable energy projects, and gas and electric transmission lines share common ground where the PSB process is concerned. The process requires an inordinate amount of money and time to participate. Citizens, through an accident of their location, must become involved in three rounds of pre-filed testimony, three rounds of discovery, opportunities for depositions, and last minute deals in the form of MOUs between ANR and developers, all on an immovable schedule with deadlines week after week after week. This makes for a daunting undertaking, even for attorneys paid to participate.
The imbalance at the PSB process is nothing new. The late activist Joe Bivins wrote before he died in 1997, "In this setting, no one represents the community's interests in social or environmental justice. When the doors to the courthouse are opened only to the few, justice will not be found within at all."
Jane Palmer of Monkton is one of those citizens. She spoke during the public comment period of the legislators' meeting, and brought with her some, but not all of the paperwork she and her organic farmer husband have accumulated since they became intervenors in the Vermont Gas Pipeline case in April. In six months she has accumulated four large boxes full of paperwork, which she brought into the room on a hand truck.
The Commission never discussed the details of the PSB's process, or whether it is the right regulatory body to review the siting of renewable energy projects, which have local and regional land use impacts. There is a discussion to be had about the benefits of the current PSB process versus the Act 250 process, which is better equipped to address the kinds of issues raised by solar, biomass, and wind installations.
And that leads to Rep. Klein's point, that in addition to discussing the siting process, we need to talk about the issues these new technologies present.
Of all the technologies, big wind turbines create the most issues. Biomass is next, followed by solar. Fortunately these issues are quantifiable and finite. Once identified, conversations can follow. For instance, should there be efficiency standards for biomass plants? Should photovoltaic installations first be constructed on the already-built landscape? Should prime agricultural soils be avoided? What are the stormwater runoff implications of fields of solar panels, and are those impacts being adequately anticipated and addressed? Looking at what has been installed so far, can we point to "good" and "bad" installations and learn from them? What do we want to see more of and what do we want to see less of? What are the issues for historic districts? Scenic areas? And firefighters?
The joint energy committee must also look at the problems that have occurred with already-installed renewable energy projects, and how to address the harm that is occurring. This conversation is primarily about big wind turbines, with neighbors around all three Vermont mountains developed for wind energy complaining about noise pollution, headaches, nausea, ringing in the ears, and a degraded quality of life. Properties around Georgia Mountain have had their values lowered by town listers by 8 to 12 percent.
The damage from big wind turbine development is real and with three projects to learn from, is identifiable. A sacrifice zone of 2 1/2 to 3 miles around each set of turbines is the real-world result of big wind turbines on ridgelines. Are we going to decide it is an acceptable cost to sacrifice some Vermonters? Should people who can no longer live in their homes be compensated for having to leave their homes? If so, who pays? Are the noise levels set by the PSB doing what was intended, protecting public health and people's quality of life? Are state agencies adequately responding to the complaints from neighbors of big wind turbines?
We have a lot to talk about. If we do not talk about these issues we may very well be jeopardizing our natural resources and communities, and Vermont's renewable energy future. I look forward to the Oct. 30 meeting of the joint energy committees in the Statehouse.
Annette Smith is the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc. She writes from Danby.