Reposted from Burlington Free Press.
MONTPELIER — A bill that started out as a three-year moratorium on wind projects in Vermont instead adds more rules to the permitting process but still has the strong opposition of renewable-energy advocates who argue it would essentially halt those projects.
The Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee is poised to vote the bill out, possibly Wednesday morning. The bill is likely to be considered by the full Senate after the Legislature’s break for town meeting next week.
The measure faces stiff opposition in the House and from Gov. Peter Shumlin, but for opponents of large-scale wind projects it represents the first time they feel they’ve been heard by legislators.
The bill was launched in January as a moratorium on wind projects, heralded by those who’ve unsuccessfully fought projects in Sheffield and Lowell and by those worried about proposed projects in Newark, Rutland and Windham. In committee during the past couple months, the measure took on a slightly different tone, requiring environmental criteria to be met before such projects are approved.
“I don’t see the need to have a big, long moratorium,” said Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, chairman of the committee and a sponsor of the original bill. “The big thing it does is require projects to conform with Act 250.”
Under current law, energy projects go through the Public Service Board for approval, which must consider Act 250 criteria but may approve the projects if the board thinks they meet the overall public good. The revised bill would require renewable energy projects to conform to Vermont’s Act 250 land-use planning regulations.
That would increase the involvement of local towns and regional planning districts, which would resolve complaints that local residents have little say in the siting of these projects, Hartwell said. Act 250 criteria also would require projects to meet certain standards for impact on streams and wildlife.
“It applies Vermont’s well-established environmental standards to industrial wind projects,” said Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, a committee member and supporter of the bill. “These projects can do significant environmental damage so this requires siting to be done in a way that doesn’t do that damage.”
For those pushing a moratorium, the bill is not quite what they wanted, but it offers some help.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Matt Levin of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
He said, however, that the bill wouldn’t specifically halt projects in the pipeline and offers no resources to help local residents navigate a cumbersome planning process, as the original bill would have done. “There will be people in the communities not happy that this is not a moratorium,” Levin said.
Renewable energy advocates, who have fought the idea of a moratorium, don’t like this bill any more than they did the original.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said, “This could easily put a halt to virtually all wind development in Vermont. It remains an anti-renewables bill.”
Burns pointed to the results of a Castleton Polling Institute poll that came out Tuesday, indicating 66 percent of Vermonters support wind development on ridgelines, and 69 percent were willing to have a wind farm in their own communities.
Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the Natural Resources & Energy Committee, argued the bill isn’t anti-renewable. She insisted on adding wording to the bill saying the state supports increased use of renewable energy.
She said she didn’t think adding Act 250 criteria to the process would discourage projects from being sited. “It should help it,” she said. “What’s wrong with the process is that these environmental impacts and the voice of neighbors and communities was not being heard.”
Not everyone agrees that projects could win approval using this criteria.
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, said he would likely vote against the bill in committee. “It’s trying to say we’re concerned about global warming, but the solutions ought to be pursued in places other than here,” MacDonald said.
Hartwell said if this process had been in place when the 21-turbine project in Lowell was proposed, more emphasis would have been given to environmental impact and what the communities wanted.
“It would have been built, but maybe not in the same place,” he said. “Some won’t be built.”
Mark Whitworth, legislative outreach coordinator for Energize Vermont, a group that seeks a moratorium, said he thinks the revised bill would have killed the Lowell project. “I’m not sure there would be a public good that would outweigh the damage at Lowell,” he said.
State Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said the administration believes lawmakers should wait until a specially appointed siting commission finishes its work in April before making any changes. That group is charged with looking at whether the process of siting energy projects needs changing.
Recchia, who was deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources when the Lowell project was being developed, said he thinks projects could be developed using Act 250 criteria. He said the Public Service Board held the project to environmental standards. “I’m not sure it would be different,” he said.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a leading advocate of the moratorium in the Legislature, said he thinks the bill would help stop some projects. “Most developers would have a very difficult time trying to develop projects on ridgelines,” he said. Of Lowell, he said, “It definitely would not have happened.”
“It does strengthen the process for towns and regions,” he said.
Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, said the bill would allow energy projects to be decided by local towns or regions, while they should be judged on a statewide basis.
“We need to turn the conversation to, ‘How is the state going to reach 90 percent renewable by 2050,’” she said. “We need to do it in a coordinated way.”