Location, location, location

Energy Siting Commission holds first public hearing

BRATTLEBORO — Real estate agents say location is criterion number one when selling a house.

As Vermont attempts to increase its energy independence per its 2011 Comprehensive Energy Plan, a new effort is under way to determine location, location, location - and other attributes - for for new electric generation projects.

The Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission held its first public hearing at Brattleboro Union High School on Jan. 23, drawing roughly 50 residents from the Windham County area. Some came from as far north as Burlington.

The five-member commission, appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in October 2012, heard public comment for approximately two hours. Although many of the comments focused on the pros and cons of specific energy projects, principally commercial wind or a proposed biomass plant in Springfield, audience members also offered suggestions for future siting rules.

The Commissioner of Public Service and the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources are ex-officio members of the commission.

The commission will submit recommendations to Shumlin and the Legislature on best practices for approving the siting of electric generation projects. The recommendations will also include public participation in the siting process.

Net metered and group net metered projects, generally small renewable energy projects owned by consumers, are not included in the commission's purview.

Commission Chair Jan Eastman told the audience the commission's charge covered project siting. The charge did not cover determining which power generation people supported.

Speakers had three minutes. The commission also accepts written comments.

Draft recommendations go to the Legislature in March. A written report, according to executive order no. 10-12, is due April 30 and will recommend modifications to the siting process through actions such as legislation or Public Service Board (PSB) rule.

The electric generation projects are permitted under processes under VSA Title 30, Section 248. The Public Service Board has final approval.

Some audience members urged the commission to streamline the permitting process for renewable energy projects to combat the effects of global warming.

Other audience members voiced support for more district energy projects - multiple small projects powering a neighborhood or cluster of buildings - that could provide electricity while having smaller footprints on their host environments.

Jim Morey of Windham told the commission that a method for compensating property owners near wind turbines for lost property value was missing from the permitting procedure.

Leslie Morey, his wife, added that the impact on property values could disproportionally affect elders who have a significant amount of their assets tied up in their homes.

Jan Ameen of Westminster wanted the permitting procedure to move through the state's environmental Act 250 process before the PSB's process. She also wanted to see a statewide plan aimed at developing new energy projects in an organized fashion over what she called the current “piecemeal” development.

Ameen is a member of the North Springfield Action Group, which is working to prevent construction of a 35-megawatt wood-chip fueled biomass plant in North Springfield. According to Ameen, the plant would consume 550 tons of wood a day, or about 20,000 acres of woodlands a year, and emit 1,176 tons of greenhouse gases daily.

Another member of the Action Group hoped the commission would consider the issue of merchant plants, like the Winstanley Enterprises LLC and Weston Solutions Inc.'s biomass plant. These merchant plants site projects where it suited them, not the host communities, and then sell the power out of state.

Linda Gray, a member of Norwich's town energy committee, said the town committee supported the goals set out in Vermont's comprehensive energy plan. The goals won't be met, however, without renewables in the mix.

To combat climate change, the projects should receive consideration at the state-level PSB, not through Act 250 which requires considering local town plans.

Other audience members, including West Brattleboro resident Michael Bosworth, called for local control of siting renewables. Bosworth asked the commission to write guidelines that considered the scale and location of projects in conjunction with existing development. He gave the example of siting a wind turbine on a ridge line already occupied by a ski area before opening an untouched ridge line.

The state should also outline areas where wind development is appropriate, Bosworth said. He asked that recreational areas such as the Long Trail receive special considerations to stay turbine-free.

Rebecca Jones, a Brattleboro-based doctor and member of the environmental organization 350 Vermont, asked that the commission find recommendations that considered human rights in siting energy projects.

According to Jones, 350 Vermont is developing a white paper on energy siting and human rights. The paradigm around siting of generation plants has traditionally been “centralized and top-down.”

Alex Gilbert, a student at the Vermont Law School, said the state should involve local communities when siting energy generation projects. The affected communities should also receive some form of benefit such as tax breaks.

Not every area in Vermont has adequate transmission capabilities, he said. Siting also should consider placing energy generation projects in areas with existing transmission lines to keep project footprints small. Reducing environmental impacts also included siting near existing roads and other infrastructure over breaking into undisturbed land.

The audience and some commission members applauded suggestions from Westminster West resident Deborah Krasner, who proposed the state hold a contest for new alternative energy projects. She also suggested that the state create a favorable business climate to help Vermont-owned businesses become alternative energy innovators. Finally, she suggested siting solar panels along roads like Interstate 91 that could generate lower cost energy for Vermonters.

Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, an anti-wind activist and former gubernatorial candidate, said the commission should ask ISO New England what the true offset of wind is to fossil fuels.

“Is wind really a useful energy?” she said.

After the hearing, Chris Campany, executive director for the Windham Regional Commission, said the evening raised more questions than answers.

Campany wants to know how the local communities' planning, like town plans and energy transmission, fit into the Public Service Board's definition of the public good.

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