News analysis — Power siting commission issues report

copyright the chronicle 05-08-13

by Chris Braithwaite

Type Writer by Anna Baker-pages

Opponents of big wind who have knocked heads with devel

opers in front of the state Public Service Board (PSB), and lost, will find no magic bullet in the final report of the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, which was released Tuesday.
But they may find a few encouraging words.
Developers of big wind projects will be relieved, if hardly surprised, that the commission would leave the permitting process in the hands of the PSB.  It’s a process they’re familiar with, and appear to have mastered.
Developers may, however, feel that in its effort to fix a process that “lacks sufficient clarity, transparency and predictability,” the commission has made recommendations that would make their job more difficult.
One lobbying group, Renewable Energy Vermont, went public within an hour of the report’s release with a statement of “significant concern with some of the recommendations, which threaten to take Vermont’s energy progress backwards.”
Although the commission would probably deny it, its 103-page report is really about industrial scale wind projects.  Governor Peter Shumlin didn’t mention renewable energy — let alone wind energy — when he created the small commission with the very long name last October.
He asked it for “guidance and recommendations on best practices for the siting approval of electric generation projects larger than the net metering threshold, and for public participation and representation in the siting process.”
But it was created in the aftermath of some very bitter battles over two big wind projects in the Northeast Kingdom.  The Governor, an enthusiastic advocate of big wind, was taking some heat, and the Legislature was about to take up a bill that would impose a moratorium on such projects.
If the commission’s political purpose was to deflect any move against big wind, it seems to have succeeded.  As Paul Lefebvre reports elsewhere in this week’s paper, the wind moratorium bill is limping into a committee of conference as a study, which will give due consideration to the recommendations of the Governor’s Energy Siting Policy Commission.
The commission recommends that communities have a bigger say in the power siting process — but there’s a catch.
The communities involved are large, the collections of towns that make up each of the state’s 11 regional planning commissions (RPCs).  In this area, that would be the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.
The commission would set the 11 RPCs to work on “energy guidelines, policies, and land use suitability maps as part of their regional plans.”
And it would have the state give each RPC $40,000 to accomplish the task.
Properly drafted, the commission says, such plans should be “dispositive” before the PSB.  That would seem to mean that if a developer proposed a project that didn’t fit the regional plan, the PSB’s answer would be a firm “No.”
That recommendation was singled out by Renewable Energy Vermont.  Regional planning commissions, it said, “neither have the staffing resources nor the expertise to be energy siting experts.  They should not be put in that role.”
But here’s the catch:  The regional plans — individually and collectively — would have to pass muster with another state entity, the Public Service Department (PSD).
Here’s the language:  “Once updated, the elements of each regional plan affecting energy will need to be reviewed by the PSD, concurrently with other updated regional plans to determine both individual plan consistency and — in the aggregate — overall statewide consistency with the legislated energy goals and the CEP (Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan).”
The commission is careful to say that “for a region to simply opt out or construct a blanket prohibition against any particular technology does not constitute adequate planning….”
Only after satisfying the PSD would regional plans be “dispositive” before the PSB.
And the state’s renewable energy goals are extremely high.  Among them, 25 percent of all energy from in-state renewables by 2025, and 75 percent of all electricity sales from renewables by 2032.
The power this proposal would put in the hands of the Public Service Department led one commission member to issue a two-page dissent.
It comes from Louise McCarren, who was the first woman to head the PSB, under Governors Snelling and Kunin, and who also served as commissioner of the PSD.
She writes:  “A fair interpretation of the proposal is the that the PSD will have the authority, if it determines that in aggregate there has been insufficient land designated for the siting of electric generation, to specify regional and municipal land use obligations and locations for generation siting….
“This centralization of decision making regarding electric generation site selection reduces the role of municipalities, may relieve developers from working closely with municipalities, and enshrines the non-statutory CEP as the controlling land use document.”
If anyone should understand the levers of power in utility regulation it would be Ms. McCarren.  And her dissent suggests that, while appearing to put much more power in the hands of regional planning commissions, the proposal in fact would pass that power up to the commissioner of public service, who is an appointee of the Governor and serves at his or her pleasure.
Ms. McCarren, indeed, puts into simple English something critics of big wind have been struggling to articulate for years.  If renewable energy siting decisions are driven by the Legislature’s explicit renewable electric energy goals and by the administratively generated Comprehensive Energy Plan, these become the state’s “controlling land use document.”
That’s what happened to Lowell Mountain, and to Sheffield Heights.
And that realization is what recently led Senator John Rodgers to say that these very specific goals should be scrapped, and Vermont should start to plan its war on global warming all over again.
The commission, in fact, cites an alternative goal early in its report, straight out of Vermont statutes:  “by 2028: 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; 75 percent by 2050.”
That goal targets the real culprit, greenhouse gases, rather than a single source that is actually remarkably clean in Vermont, electric power.  And that would make possible a much more cost effective attack on the problem that could include the big greenhouse gas sources in Vermont, heating and transportation.
That’s what one of the Lowell Mountain project’s most articulate critics, Ron Holland, tried to tell the PSB in 2011.  The board could only reply that, given the Legislature’s specific commitment to in-state renewable electric power, wind was the most efficient alternative.  Thus the towers on Lowell Mountain would be in the public interest.
The commission made passing reference to Dr. Holland’s perspective on Tuesday.  In a section called “cross-cutting recommendations” its report calls for “consideration of economic efficiency and least environmental damage with particular attention to climate change.”
But that brief, rather obscure sentence, buried in a very long report, is unlikely to save a single ridgeline.
The full report is available at http://sitingcommission.vermont.gov/publications.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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