Our Work

Commission charged with studying impact of wind and other generating sites

Article originally published in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus on Apr 21, 2013

By Johanna Miller
No issue in Vermont of late has heightened people’s emotions and resulted in such radically different reactions as big wind.

The debate has prompted a “you’re either with us or against us” response from many, with an attempt to put people squarely in one camp or the other.

But for most Vermonters it’s not that simple. Many worry about the impending climate crisis and want to build a clean energy economy. They also care about the communities, natural resources and wildlife habitats where the wind blows best — our mountains and ridgelines.

Unfortunately the issue has become so charged that a reasoned response to increased wind energy development has so far eluded us.

Gov. Peter Shumlin assembled a five-person independent commission late last year to explore how to better address the impacts, issues and concerns surrounding the siting of electricity generation projects, including wind power.

That commission is now in the process of wrapping up its work.

The specific charge of the Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission was to provide the governor and the Legislature “a written report by April 30, 2013 regarding best practices for the siting approval of electric generation projects and for public participation and representation in the siting process.”

The governor’s Executive Order No. 10-12 set an important context to inform the commission’s work. It pointed to the Comprehensive Energy Plan’s ambitious renewable energy goals and broad support for local renewable energy generation. It also highlighted recent increases in project development and the importance of state-level review to deal with grid and reliability issues.

The volunteer commission members — two former Agency of Natural Resources secretaries, a former Vermont House speaker, a former chairwoman of the Public Service Board and a selectman — began their work Oct. 31, 2012. Since then they have worked long days and countless hours, digging into the complicated and controversial issues surrounding energy siting.

They have held open meetings, deliberated publicly and informed their deliberations each time with new information. They have taken testimony from agencies that manage the siting of electric generation in other states. They’ve heard from utilities, grid and transmission experts, local and regional planners, natural resource experts, businesses, real estate representatives and more.

They’ve also listened to representatives from some of Vermont’s most active town energy committees and members of the general public. They have traveled, holding five public hearings across Vermont and making site visits to natural gas, biomass, solar and wind installations.

Regardless of any particular position on this topic, most people agree that the issues surrounding energy, energy generation and siting are complex and complicated further by strong concerns and desires — sometimes conflicting — as Vermont communities wrestle with the development of renewable energy.

Many hope the work of the siting commission will address these issues and better balance the need for serious, swift renewable deployment in a way that best safeguards the unique features of the Vermont landscape.

“The Legislature set important goals, and we have to move in that direction — but we don’t want to move in that direction foolishly,” says Jan Eastman, chairwoman of the siting commission. “We are going to get our report to the governor and the Legislature by April 30, but clearly more work will need to be done. Our goal is to move things forward.”

The commission has outlined many recommendations in its fourth and most recent draft to help define improved practices for siting approval of electric generation projects — practices intended to make the process more efficient and objective.

Currently the commission is distilling the last round of public comments as it prepares its final recommendations.

“We were never given a charge beyond what is articulated in the executive order,” Eastman notes. “We have tried to look at the state’s goals, listen to everyone’s concerns and integrate good ideas and themes.”

Many are optimistic that the commission’s ideas will improve the process for siting and development of energy facilities.

What are the commission’s recommendations? If enacted, Vermont would see different levels of review, depending on the scale of the energy facility and potential impacts.

This could accelerate community-scale energy development while creating new public engagement processes for the largest projects. Safeguards for streams and wildlife habitat would be strengthened, and regional planning commissions would be tasked with playing a larger role in planning for energy generation across the state.

The commission will send its recommendations to Shumlin and the Legislature soon to suggest potential rule-making, legislation or other actions that state agencies, departments or lawmakers might take.

Some of those actions could happen right away or down the road. To help, the commission has included an appendix with suggested actions and timing.

For many years, with the big exception of Vermont Yankee, the state has had the luxury of hosting very little of the energy that turns on our lights, cools our refrigerators or powers our air conditioning.

But that is quickly changing. And many see it as change for the better.

It means more clean energy, more energy independence and more renewable energy companies creating jobs by putting solar on homes and businesses, finding ways to make electricity from the run of Vermont’s rivers, and more.

But we must be aware of the trade-offs and potential impacts to natural resources and communities. The siting commission’s work could help Vermont take a big step forward and bridge the stark divide so that we can begin to do what most Vermonters hope for: Build an essential clean energy future and build it right.

Johanna Miller, energy program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, can be contacted at 223-2328, jmiller@vnrc.org, www.vnrc.org or www.vecan.net.