Local control dropped from energy project bill
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | March 27,2013
MONTPELIER — Legislation that began earlier this year as a three-year moratorium on new mountaintop wind-energy projects limped off the Senate floor Tuesday as yet another study, dealing a setback to environmental activists who had sought to halt development on Vermont ridgelines.
In a four-hour debate that pitted the rights of individual communities against the greater good of the state, lawmakers decided, by the narrowest of margins, to ax from the bill a provision that would have given towns heightened influence over the creation of utility-scale wind projects within their borders.
While the bill ultimately passed by a 26-4 margin, the amendment by then had stripped it down to a mostly toothless version of its former self. The vote to eliminate municipal authority passed 16-14.
“I’m not a defeatist by any means, but I think the bill was totally gutted today,” said Senate President John Campbell, who has voiced strong concerns about mountaintop wind development. “My only hope is that … companies will not try to put up any wind towers without the town’s approval.”
The debate marked the latest episode in the long fight over wind development in Vermont. And while people opposed to utility-scale projects lost the battle Tuesday, Sen. Joe Benning said they’re hardly ready to concede defeat.
Benning, a Caledonia County Republican who has repeatedly used the word “rape” to describe the impact of the towers installed by Green Mountain Power last year on top of Lowell Mountain, said that as long as the bill survives, lawmakers will have a vehicle on which to attach new language.
“What we had yesterday was nothing,” Benning said. “What we have today is something that goes to the House with a 26-4 vote, that says the discussion is important enough that we need to keep it going.”
There aren’t currently any applications for new wind projects before the Public Service Board, the three-person panel responsible for deciding whether to approve their construction. But three proposals in the pipeline — one for Grandpa’s Knob in Castleton and adjacent towns, one for Grafton and Windham, and one for Seneca Mountain in Ferdinand — have lent urgency to the effort to halt new projects.
The bill that came to the floor Tuesday would have added a new criterion — conformance with town and regional plans — to the standards used by the PSB to evaluate large renewable energy projects. The provision would have eliminated the possibility of ridge-top wind developments, or large solar or hydro projects, in towns with municipal plans that prohibit them.
It would have marked a fundamental shift from the existing review process, called Act 248, wherein the interests of the “public good” can be used to justify the approval of projects that may have detrimental effects on the towns in which they’re sited. The result would be a process similar to the one used in Act 250, a land-use law used to determine whether shopping malls, housing complexes or other structures are appropriate for a specific area.
Sen. John Rodgers, an Essex County Republican, said the wind projects aren’t essential to the state’s energy needs and therefore shouldn’t be eligible for the “special treatment” they get under Act 248.
“To say this type of development in some of the most fragile (areas) can go through a lesser review I believe is wrong,” Rodgers said. “This bill does not stop any community that wants to proceed with renewable energy. But what it does is give my tiny community in Essex County a voice.”
Rodgers said that voice is being drowned out by the financial resources of the wind development corporations. He said the Act 248 process, unlike the one used in Act 250, does not lend itself to citizen intervention.
“They don’t have money to hire expert lawyers. They don’t have lobbyists in this building every day,” Rodgers said of residents. “This gives that community a voice to say, ‘Stop — we need further study and we cannot compete with the deep pockets of that developer.’”
Opponents of the provision said it would have the same effect as a moratorium and put a chill on a burgeoning green energy sector that is adding jobs and reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“Here we are sending a message to the renewable energy industry in Vermont, which is in the tens of millions of dollars at least, saying your future is uncertain,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, an Addison County Democrat. “We’re saying, ‘We’re going to put you on ice for a little while, and then we’ll see.’ When my mother said, ‘We’ll see,’ I knew it was never going to happen.”
Sen. Dick McCormack, a Windsor County Democrat, said it was a struggle to weigh the environmental impacts of mountaintop wind against the green energy imperative spurred by global warming.
“The very idea that I would vote against a bill to bring troublesome development of pristine areas under Act 250 jurisdiction ... is not something I would have ever expected I would do,” McCormack said.
But he said that “push has come to shove.”
“Are we serious about global warming? Or are we not?” McCormack said. “I’m going to vote against this (provision), and I’m going to break my own heart by doing it.”
Benning said what remains of the bill is not insignificant. The language includes a study, for which the Senate has appropriated $75,000, that will examine the environmental and health effects of wind energy. It also lays out a process whereby lawmakers and citizens will work to incorporate findings from Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission into legislation that could be considered next year. The commission is expected to unveil its findings within the next month or so.
The bill will still need a final vote in the Senate this week before heading over to the House. It faces an uncertain future there, where Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said he’ll withhold comment on the legislation until the Senate has given final approval.
Klein and House Speaker Shap Smith have said in the past they are wary of efforts to impede the development of renewable energy in Vermont.
peter.hirschfeld @timesargus.com firstname.lastname@example.org