March 22, 2016

Vermont Panel Backs Bill to Keep Energy Projects Where They're Welcome

Senators on the energy committee approved legislation Friday that subsidizes solar development in preferred locations and grants localities greater say in siting renewable energy projects.

S.230 would put into effect many recommendations made by the Solar Siting Task Force, which delivered a report in January that was meant to form the backbone of the bill.

"I think it's really a game-changer for towns," said Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chairman Chris Bray. "It creates a way for towns and regions to work with the state, planning for our energy future, as opposed to getting informed by the state."

"Given how hard-fought the discussion was amongst the committee members, and how deeply we looked into it, given that we came out with a 5-0-0 vote tells me we did the hard work and we came up with a good plan," Bray added.

The bill directs municipalities and regional planning commissions to include in municipal and regional plans a section on renewable energy development and siting. It also describes a certification process through the Department of Public Service to ensure the plans serve their purpose.

The Public Service Board recently stated that such plans act as a primary guiding document in its decision-making on renewable energy projects. The board issued the statement in the text of a decision denying a solar development application. The board based its decision on Bennington's town plan and the fact the proposed project conflicted with it. The board also said in the decision that many towns have written plans inadequate to serve as such a yardstick.

The bill would require the board to give local and regional plans substantial deference. Substantial deference, it states, "means that a land conservation measure or specific policy shall be applied in accordance with its terms unless there is a clear and convincing demonstration that other factors affecting the general good of the state outweigh the application of the measure or policy."

The bill would offer subsidies to developers who locate renewable energy projects in what it calls preferred sites. These sites include parking lots, the roofs of structures, brownfields, previously developed areas, landfills, quarries and gravel pits. Preferred sites also include locations that municipal plans designate as appropriate for renewable energy development.

If put into law, the bill would create a new position at the Public Service Board whose role would be to assist members of the public — without advocating on their behalf — in navigating the board's hearing process.

The bill also requires developers to set aside money for decommissioning projects once they've outlived their useful life span.

Developers also would be required to address, as part of their permit application, substantive written comments submitted by the public.

The bill directs developers to conduct a carbon emission analysis for the entire life cycle of non-net-metered projects, including pollution emitted through the manufacture of their components.

The state's Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets would become a party by right to any renewable energy application, under the bill's terms. So, too, would affected regional and local planning commissions.

The bill also directs the Public Service Board to issue an order by Sept. 1 in its work regarding the development of standards for sound levels emitted by renewable energy developments.

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