The 3.6-megawatt Essex Solar Center went into operation last year. It is the state's largest solar farm. It sits in a field alongside the Winooski River in Essex. SEE STORY. Courtesy photo
Vermont Business Magazine Governor Peter Shumlin today signed S260, a bill designed to improve regional and town energy planning and to enhance community input into the siting of energy projects. He vetoed the original version of the bill, S230, exactly one week ago. The legislation was developed over a number of months, and was based in large part on the recommendations of the Solar Siting Task Force. It provides regional planning commissions and towns with “substantial deference” before the Public Service Board when their plans have been determined to be consistent with state energy and climate goals. Funding and training to support planning efforts will be available through the Regional Planning Commissions working in concert with the Department of Public Service and the Vermont League of Cities and towns. The new law requires planning across sectors to include electricity generation, electric and thermal efficiency, and transportation.
Late last Thursday night, June 9, the Legislature finally was able to pass a revised renewable energy siting bill. Shumlin vetoed the old bill, S230, June 6. The biggest issue for him was the reference to sound levels from wind turbines, which he felt could jeopardize any new wind energy installations. The veto came even after the much watered-down bill passed both legislative bodies and had already been tempered with the governor's suggestions. Supporters of the veto and new bill called it a "fix" that "corrected errors" in the original S230, An act relating to improving the siting of energy projects. The modified legislation, S260, addresses the concerns that led the governor to veto the original bill.
Republicans in the House had initially balked at issuing a new bill because of the lateness of the changes to a bill that already had seen much compromise and passed the House unanimously. They felt any changes could wait until the new Legislature convened next year. They were already concerned about the $50,000+ cost per day of the veto session. Ultimately they backed off their threat to stonewall the proceedings after Speaker Shap Smith said the House would stay in session long enough to write a new bill with or without suspension of the rules, which Republicans ultimately agreed to.
Governor Shumlin signs S260 Monday afternoon. Among those looking on are Speaker Shap Smith (far left); Representative Tony Klein (far right) and Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia (kneeling). Courtesy photo.
Lawmakers addressed and replaced concerns over wind energy sound standards and added the required funding for local and regional participation in energy siting decisions. Both versions of the bill give local communities some say in how and where renewable energy can be sited. Farmers, landowners and town officials have been at odds as local governments have had virtually no say in where the projects are located. They still won't have final say, but will be able to make recommendations and have more input going forward.
“This new law provides a roadmap for how we continue to transform our energy system in Vermont while improving opportunities for our communities to have a say in the process,” Shumlin said. “This comprehensive legislation brings to conclusion a sometimes challenging but necessary discussion about how to best plan for the locally-produced clean energy we need. I want to say thank you to Speaker Shap Smith and President Pro Tem John Campbell, all the legislators who worked on this bill, and in particular Senator Chris Bray who authored the legislation and Representative Tony Klein who shepherded it through the House.
“I am so pleased that the Legislature was able to address the concerns I raised, and get the language in this bill right,” the governor said. “Now we can foster strong community participation in planning for Vermont’s energy future, while also providing new wind energy sound standards that are rational and will not take an important renewable energy technology off the table at a time when Vermont is leading the nation in per capita clean energy jobs."
Said Senator Chris Bray, “This is a powerful tool for our state’s towns and regional planning commissions, and it’s a tool that will serve us well in the decades ahead as we continue to transform our generation and use of energy in Vermont.”
Said Representative Tony Klein, "With the passage of S 260 very clear positive energy and land use policy will now be enacted. The Administration and the Legislature has now made good on a promise to scores of Vermont towns to give them a greater voice in the siting of local energy projects!"
Said Fran Putnam of the Weyeridge Energy Committee, "Some local communities have expressed concerns about the siting of renewable energy installations. This law strikes an appropriate balance between those concerns and the need to get 90 percent of Vermont's energy from renewable sources by 2050. The Weybridge Energy Committee can now work with our local Planning Commission to modify our town plan to take advantage of the provisions of this new law."
Said Adam Lougee, Executive Director, Addison County Regional Planning Commission, “Solar siting has been and remains a controversial topic in Addison County and Vermont. This bill, S260, stands as an important piece of legislation for Addison County, its municipalities and it citizens because it recognizes the importance of planning and citizen involvement. Government works most efficiently, thoughtfully and effectively when it is crafted by citizens that have an interest in the outcome. S260 recognizes Vermont’s commitment to carbon free, locally generated renewable energy. As importantly, it recognizes the need to plan for how, and where, Vermont produces that energy. It provides resources to enable regional, municipal and local voices to craft those plans. Lastly, it changes regulatory standards to ensure that the regional and local planning voices it enables will receive the deference their work deserves. The Addison County Regional Planning Commission is happy to host the Governor’s signing of this bill into law.”
In addition to enhancing local and regional planning for renewables, providing municipalities and regions with more say in the permitting process, and establishing a two-step process for developing new wind energy sound standards, S. 260 has a number of other provisions including:
- Increasing the participation of the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets in energy permitting decisions, giving more attention to agricultural soils in the permitting process, and ensuring that energy development on agricultural soils won’t inadvertently make it easier for other types of future development to occur on those soils
- A one-year pilot within the Standard Offer program to site renewable energy projects in preferred locations such as parking lots, rooftops, brownfields, closed landfills, gravel pits, and town designated areas
- Development of rules to address ongoing maintenance of plantings for screening as well as the decommissioning of energy facilities at the end of their useful life
- Enhanced notice provisions to neighboring towns and regions when applications for new energy generation facilities are initiated
- A requirement that any new wind generation facility of four or more turbines minimize visual impact at nighttime by installing radar-controlled lights
- A simplified permitting process for group net metered systems that are majority-owned by customers, as well as for rooftop systems
- The creation of a working group to assess ways to increase the ease of citizen participation in energy permitting proceedings
"I want to thank the House and Senate for fixing this important bill," Governor Shumlin said Thursday night.
"Vermont's leadership building out renewable energy is growing jobs, saving Vermonters money, and helping to address climate change, the most pressing challenge we face as a state, nation, and world. This modified legislation will allow us to continue to lead the way on renewable energy while giving local communities more say as we chart a cleaner, greener energy future together. I look forward to signing it."
The VNRC also applauded the Legislature: "The original intent of the bill remains intact and the modified legislation, S.260, is important for many reasons:
It will help combat climate change and meet our renewable energy goals – in ways that work better for communities;
it will add a needed planning and public engagement framework that will better balance community concerns with our need to transition to more local, renewable resources;
it will increase protection of high-quality agricultural soils;
it creates incentives for solar projects located on rooftops, parking lots, landfills, and other areas Vermonters have identified as area where they would like to see renewable energy development occur; and
it will not create a de-facto moratorium on wind energy."
Olivia Campbell Andersen, Executive Director, Renewable Energy Vermont, said in a statement:
"As S260 is signed into law today, we celebrate the clear message from Vermont legislators and the administration that local, clean energy should continue to lead Vermont's climate solutions. This bill will help Vermont have both clean energy and a vibrant economy. One of every 17 workers is employed in the clean energy sector in Vermont, and we are thankful that legislative leaders chose to not play politics with our jobs. We appreciate the extra effort by Governor Shumlin, Speaker Smith, and Chairmen Bray and Klein to develop a constructive path forward so that communities can help grow our clean energy economy and implement climate solutions.
"The large majority of Vermonters support more renewable energy in their communities. Vermont currently has 17,715 people working in clean energy jobs, an increase of 9% from last year. With Vermonters already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change, it is important that we utilize all available tools - including community solar, wind energy, and other clean energy technologies to combat this challenge."
RELATED STORY: Shumlin vetoes renewable energy siting bill, S230