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What Role Should Vermont Towns Play In Siting Renewable Energy?

Asa Hopkins, director of planning and energy resources at the Department of Public Service, addresses a crowd Tuesday morning in Montpelier at a public forum on energy-planning standards.

Legislation approved earlier this year tries to give towns more say over where wind and solar projects are built. But municipalities are going to have to earn their influence, and the state is now working on rules that will govern towns’ roles in the renewable-energy siting process.

About 60 people from across the state gathered at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier on Tuesday morning. They included municipal officials, regional planners, environmental advocates and other people with skin in the renewable-energy game.

“This summer I’ve been reading a book, a history of the 1927 flood in Vermont, and the aftermath, the response to it,” said Jon Copans, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, welcoming attendees to what was billed as a public forum on energy-planning standards. 

It’s up to Copans’ department now to write the standards that will govern towns’ influence over the renewable-energy siting process. And he says the book on the historic flood, The Troubled Roar of the Waters, by Deborah Pickman Clifford and Nicholas R. Clifford, captures the tension at play in that task.

“And there is a line in there describing Vermonters as both embracing progress, but also detesting change,” Copans says. 

Vermonters by and large want more renewable energy. They are less of a common mind when it comes to where that energy development should go. 

“And that is the fear of change, right?” Copans says. “We want to preserve what we have that is so magical about this place.”

And therein lies the challenge. 

Local autonomy vs. state goals

The new legislation gives towns unprecedented standing in the regulatory process, and is designed in part to help municipalities squelch the wind and solar projects that residents don’t want. 

But before towns can gain that standing, the legislation requires them to have town plans that are consistent with the state’s overall energy goals. The Department of Public Service now gets to decide what that consistency entails.

“Today it’s all about what are those standards going to look like, and really, from our point of view, how prescriptive the department decides to make them,” says Karen Horn, director of public policy at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. 

More than 150 towns have signed onto a resolution seeking greater influence over the siting process. Horn says her hope is that the standards will deliver that influence. 

Some local officials say they worry about whether the Department of Public Service will issue standards that give towns the latitude they're seeking.

“And that we’re in a better position to make our case for what’s appropriate from the local point of view,” Horn says.

But some local officials say they worry about whether the Department of Public Service will issue standards that give towns the latitude they’re seeking. 

Paul Brouha, chairman of the planning commission in Sutton, says there are lots of unique factors at play for towns looking to determine their role in helping the state achieve its overall renewable energy standards.

“And quite frankly, having somebody tell you what your target ought to be often times doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Brouha says.

Brouha says he appreciates the need to balance statewide energy goals against the will of local communities. 

“But at the same time you don’t want to make these criteria so punitive, and difficult to achieve, that the towns will simply drop out of the planning process. And I see that happening,” Brouha says.

Participation concerns

The stakes in this process are equally high for proponents of more wind and solar generation. 

Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says one of his concerns is that the standards won’t require sufficient participation from local communities in achieving statewide renewable energy goals.  

“And instead they plan to be overly restrictive of renewable energy development in a way that prevents us from achieving those goals,” Shupe says.

Copans says the new standards won’t be a magic bullet.

"[Communities] plan to be overly restrictive of renewable energy development in a way that prevents us from achieving those goals." - Brian Shupe, Vermont Natural Resources Council executive director

“Look, I’m not going to pretend that this is 100 percent going to resolve tension around the siting of energy projects,” Copans says.

But he says he’s optimistic they’ll deliver a better framework for energy siting than the state employs right now.

“The key is to have a sort of rational process and a planning process that happens before there is a conversation about a specific project in a specific location,” Copans says.

Legislation opposition

The department will issue draft rules sometime in September. The final draft is due by Nov. 1.

No matter what the eventual standards look like, there is a contingent of Vermonters who will be working next year to undo them.

Steve Wright is a member of the Craftsbury Conservation Commission, and president of Ridge Protectors, a group opposed to mountaintop wind development in the state. Wright says the general feeling among the anti-wind activists he works with is that the new siting law “is a waste of time, that the fix is in, that there’s nothing we can do.”

Wright says the state needs to rethink its energy planning goals from scratch.

“We need a new approach, and we’re going to have a new legislature, and we believe there’s great potential there,” Wright says.

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