Commission's goal is 'empowering' towns in power projects in Vermont
BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission had a long name and a big task -- to gauge the state's effectiveness and openness in deciding where power projects should be built.
But the commission didn't have much time -- just six months -- to sort through those complicated and contentious issues. And member Tom Bodett, appointed in mid-November after the commission's work was under way, had even less time.
But the Dummerston resident said he's satisfied with a final report that recommends making the state's energy-siting process more transparent and more reliant on local planning.
"My job was to bring the perspective of local government to the discussion based on my many years with the Dummerston Selectboard," Bodett said. "I feel very good about where we ended up in terms of empowering local and regional planning to determine their own futures in the new energy landscape."
That landscape is changing rapidly, in part due to Vermont's ambitious goal to obtain 90 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2050. That is partially responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of electric-generation applications filed with the state Public Service Board.
The siting commission's report, which was released last Tuesday, says there were no such applications from 2000 to 2003. But there have been an average of 16 such dockets annually over the past decade.
And there also have been increasing concerns that the state's approach to reviewing and approving those projects is antiquated.
Members of the siting commission heard plenty of opinions during numerous public meetings. But there were some common themes, Bodett said.
"Overall, I can say with some confidence that we have addressed the issues we consistently heard from the public and the industry developers alike -- that our current process is too complicated, too expensive, too slow, not transparent enough and not sensitive enough to cultural and environmental considerations," he said.
So the commission came up with five main recommendations to address those concerns:
-- Increase emphasis on planning at the state, regional and municipal levels so that the state's energy-siting decisions are consistent with regional plans.
-- Adopt a "tiered" approach to reviewing energy projects by more quickly and efficiently addressing smaller or less-controversial proposals "while focusing the bulk of PSB time and effort on the evaluation of larger or more complex projects."
-- Increase opportunities for public participation.
-- Implement procedural changes to increase transparency, efficiency and predictability in the siting process.
-- Update environmental, health and other protection guidelines.
The first recommendation -- a new emphasis on local and regional planning -- could satisfy some who have complained that the state Public Service Board does not sufficiently take into account local concerns when reviewing energy applications.
That complaint surfaced here last year when a subsidiary of wind-power developer Iberdrola Renewables proposed construction of three wind-testing towers in the towns of Windham and Grafton.
The Public Service Board approved those towers over the objection of Windham officials, who pointed out that their town plan bans industrial wind.
Bodett is hopeful that increasing the scope and influence of local energy planning will head off such disputes.
"Front-loading the process with thoughtful local planning will ensure that renewable-energy generation -- be it wind, solar, hydro, or biomass -- end up in the best places and not just the easiest places, and they end up in areas in such a way as to enhance local communities rather than stress them out," Bodett said in an e-mail to the Reformer.
"The hope is that, with local and regional plans in place, the most difficult and controversial projects -- as we've seen examples of recently -- will never be proposed in the first place."
A key commission recommendation is that regional energy plans should take on much greater importance in the state's energy-permitting process.
Those plans would receive what's called "substantial consideration" and, if they've been approved as consistent with state energy goals, the regional documents would rise another notch to "dispositive" -- in other words, they would be the decisive word in whether a project is approved or not.
Likewise, municipal plans such as Windham's also would get "substantial consideration" by the Public Service Board if they are consistent with regional energy plans.
"That's a shift in a lot of respects," said Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission executive director.
However, officials also noted that such regional energy plans don't yet exist. So the siting commission recommends that the state "provide the necessary guidance, tools, training and resources" to allow local officials to develop those documents.
Resources include state funding estimated at $40,000 initially needed for each regional planning effort.
Campany said Windham Regional already has addressed energy issues in existing plans, but most-often in terms of energy conservation -- not project siting.
He said regional planning commissions need more specifics about the state's energy goals.
"From there, you can start to determine what kind of energy developments are appropriate within a given area," Campany said.
He stressed that Windham Regional would not be identifying "specific properties" where certain types of energy generation can or should occur. Rather, the commission will address the issue generally, seeking to define the types of land where solar or wind power, for example, might be most appropriate.
But things may get difficult, Campany acknowledged, when adjoining municipalities disagree fundamentally on what constitutes appropriate energy development.
"That's going to be the hardest part," Campany said. "These are the kinds of conversations that we need to have. Some towns have had these conversations, and others haven't."
The fact that those conversations will take on more importance was applauded by Paul Cameron, Brattleboro town energy coordinator and Brattleboro Climate Protection executive director.
"I like the report's emphasis on planning at the regional level to ensure that projects are sited in the best places," Cameron said, adding that he supports the siting commission's "encouragement of community-led projects and increasing opportunities for public participation."
The siting commission makes repeated references to greater transparency, and that includes -- as Cameron notes -- more public participation in the state's permitting efforts.
For example, the commission calls for earlier public notification for larger energy projects as well as establishment of a "trigger point" for public notification when meetings with the state Agency of Natural Resources and the state Public Service Department begin.
"I think it's especially important that the public support the process that the state uses to site projects, even if not everyone agrees with the final outcome," Cameron said. "And I agree that the process should be more open, accessible and inclusive."
However, it's unclear how many of the siting commission's recommendations will become reality. The commission's report says many "could be implemented almost immediately, while others will require further refinement, rule-making or statutory change."
That means some changes are dependent on support from the state legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin.
"Now it's in the hands of the people with real power and influence to make it happen," Bodett said.
That's why Campany is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"Right now, these are just recommendations," he said. "That's all they are."
A copy of the siting commission's full report, along with other documents, is available at http://sitingcommission.vermont.gov.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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