Vermont's war of words over renewable energy continues

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MONTPELIER >> Critics of Vermont's process for deciding where solar and wind energy projects can be built emerged from a legislative hearing Tuesday unhappy, while a key regulator said the dissatisfaction stems from "growing pains of a changing world."

In the end, Vermont's war of words over the issue continues unabated.

Two House committees, Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources and Energy, took testimony from Margaret Cheney, a member of the utility-regulating Public Service Board. She criticized several aspects of a Senate-passed bill now under consideration in the House that is described as aiming to enhance the say of residents in energy planning.

Most of the criticisms were technical, dealing with language Cheney described as vague or ambivalent. But she took aim at a new position the board envisioned in the legislation. The public assistance officer, whose job is to help members of the public navigate the board's often legalistic processes, cannot be both neutral, as the bill calls for, and help residents in cases before the board, Cheney argued.

Cheney told lawmakers the three-member board and its staff need to do a better job welcoming members of the public who want to participate in cases before it.

"There have been legitimate complaints about navigating and understanding the board process," Cheney said. She said the board has hired a new clerk, is issuing more press releases and is improving its online presence. "We are working to do a much better job with customer service."

Cheney also took aim at part of the bill calling for the board to reopen a study of complaints from some wind turbine neighbors about noise from the machines. She said the board's study was not meant to arrive at the new noise limits called for in the bill, and that that would require a new case to be brought to the board.

After the hearing, she said she wasn't sure why a vocal segment of the public was complaining about a proliferation of solar panels and wind power turbines on Vermont's landscape. She said the vast majority of projects draw no complaints, but of those that do, "I think that some of it is growing pains in a changing world."

Mark Whitworth, board president of the critics' group Energize Vermont, responded later.

"I think that's incredibly insensitive and wrong," he said.

"The problem is that Vermont is undertaking a massive buildout of energy, and we have no standards. We don't have siting standards, and we don't have operating standards."


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