In Yankee's Wake, Legislators Look to Fast-Track Renewable Power Projects
Minutes after voting to shut down Vermont Yankee, state Senate leaders summoned reporters to talk about “where we go from here.” The lawmakers’ answer: windmills, solar panels and methane-fueled “cow power.”
“We have an economic boom coming as a nation and as a planet, as we get off our addiction to oil and move to renewable [energy] technology,” said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham).
Even as senators debated the future of the 38-year-old nuclear plant, lawmakers on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee were hearing testimony on a bill aimed at speeding the construction of wind turbines, photovoltaic arrays and “cow-power” energy projects.
State Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), the chairman of that committee, is shepherding a bill that could significantly alter how windmill farms and other renewable energy projects get built in Vermont. Klein says the goal is to overcome a number of sticking points that have stalled construction of such projects and to “consolidate” the appeals process so projects can’t be indefinitely delayed by citizen groups that oppose them.
“Everybody loves renewable energy in Vermont,” Klein says. “Well, where is it? It doesn’t take much money for a person or group of people to stop it dead in its tracks. It’s too easy and without merit.”
The Sheffield wind-turbine project illustrates Klein’s point. Plans to build 16 wind turbines in the Northeast Kingdom town won state approval in 2006 but have stayed bogged down in citizen appeals ever since. Two other wind projects, in Milton and Searsburg, have received the state’s OK, but neither has broken ground.
Citizens in Lowell, meanwhile, voted Tuesday on a 24-turbine project proposed by Green Mountain Power that would provide enough energy to power 20,000 homes each year. Lowell voters overwhelmingly approved a 20-24-turbine wind farm proposed by Green Mountain Power, voting 75-25 in favor of the ridgeline wind project.** The town of Ira also weighed in on a proposed windmill development on Town Meeting Day.
The legislation wending through Klein’s committee would do several things. Perhaps most importantly, it would transfer jurisdiction over appeals from the Environmental Court to the Public Service Board. Disputes over a renewable energy project’s impact on air pollution, aquatic species, storm-water runoff and wetland habitats would no longer be heard by an environmental judge but by a three-member panel of utility experts.
Klein says this new proposed process makes sense because Public Service Board members, having already reviewed approved energy projects, are familiar enough with them to determine the merits of an appeal.
The bill would also make it easier to erect meteorological towers, or “met towers” — steel structures that stand up to 260 feet tall and measure wind speed for prospective turbine farms. Also in the bill: All of Vermont’s cow-power producers would get premium, above-market rates for electricity they produce. Struggling dairy farms would be offered incentives to lease parts of their land for renewable projects. Finally, public notice and review schedules would be shortened for the construction of met towers.
Surveys have shown that a majority of Vermonters want more energy from renewable sources — and say they’re willing to pay more for it. A “deliberative poll” conducted for the state Department of Public Service in 2007 found that Vermonters overwhelmingly favored increasing renewable power production in the state. The deliberative process involved gathering a sampling of Vermonters in a hotel for a weekend of informational sessions on energy. When those sessions were over, 90 percent of participants supported the building of a wind farm within sight of their house, 89 percent said they would pay more for energy that didn’t emit greenhouse gases, and 23 percent said they would shell out an extra $26 or more per month for green power.
But not everyone thinks Klein’s plans for “expediting” renewable projects are a good idea. Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which helps citizen groups navigate the complex regulatory process for big energy projects, says she opposes Klein’s bill because it addresses the “perceived” problems holding up renewable energy, not the real ones. Slow permitting isn’t the issue, Smith says. She believes what’s making trouble for windmill developers is lack of community involvement in the projects, poorly written permit applications, siting that fails to address neighbors’ concerns, and worries about effects on environmental and public health.
Smith lists several problems with the renewable energy bill as written. First, she notes, it transfers appeals authority from judges with expertise in environmental matters to utility regulators. Second, it eliminates rules dictating the notification of abutting landowners and local planning commissions before “met towers” go up in their towns, and gives the public less time to comment on those projects. Finally, it requires citizens to hire “qualified experts” to present evidence of the environmental harm met towers could cause.
“When a technology is failing to succeed, there are reasons,” says Smith, who notes she’s not “anti-wind.” “If it’s a good project, it will succeed. If it’s a bad project it will fail.”
Lawrence Mott is chairman of Renewable Energy Vermont, a business trade group of green power systems manufacturers. He disagrees with Smith and says cumbersome permitting has everything to do with why Vermonters don’t see wind turbines and solar arrays all over.
“Private business is unable to effectively move renewables forward because permitting is very uncertain,” says Mott, who is director of New Generation Partners, a developer of “midscale” renewable energy projects based in Bristol. “When you have lack of certainty, investors aren’t interested in putting dollars there.”
Mott says there’s a huge windfall awaiting any state that can rapidly grow a green power industry. Energy produced in Vermont creates local jobs, attracts investment and circulates dollars in state, he notes. With the prospect of Vermont Yankee closing on the horizon, Mott says, Vermont should move aggressively to fill the void with new-generation power sources.
“We’ve said no in the Senate” to Vermont Yankee, Mott says. “Now we need to say yes to something, and this bill is about saying yes to renewable energy.”
**We added a post-election update to the online version of this story.