Broader energy planning in order
Across the country and here in Vermont, states are taking action to address climate change despite the lack of federal leadership. One of the popular strategies is to replace fossil fuel-driven energy sources with wind and solar energy. These new energy sources are needed to meet the state’s energy goals, and important state-led processes and decisions about our energy future are under way and the outcomes will have lasting impacts. Our state leaders need to plan carefully and ensure that Vermont citizens not only have a seat at the table, but have a voice in the process. This is especially important when decisions about future energy development could not only affect Vermont’s well-loved scenery, but also our forests, waterways and wildlife.
This past October Gov. Shumlin established the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission to offer guidance for siting future energy projects, including renewable sources like wind, and to be sure the public can play a meaningful role in decisions about how projects are sited. This commission has been asked to deliver a report to the governor and Vermont Legislature by the end of April. While the intentions are good, the mandate of the energy siting commission is too narrow and its time frame too short to tackle what the state really needs to do as a next step in energy planning. Several important issues must be tackled to ensure the governor’s goals are met.
First, Vermonters need to have some honest conversations about what is really required to reach our energy goals, which means understanding how energy development will affect our landscape in the long term. For all their benefits, renewable energy projects will impact Vermont’s natural environment. The comprehensive energy plan released by the Department of Public Service in 2011 was a start, but that initiative was also rushed, and the resulting plan does not fully describe what it would take to achieve the stated goal of 90 percent renewable energy by midcentury. Plunging ahead with energy development without carefully evaluating appropriate sites could result in a new set of problems for our state. If this complex planning task is beyond the mandate of the commission, then we need a different forum that can take up where the commission leaves off.
Second, the commission has the opportunity to make the energy permit process more open to stakeholders and fairer to those affected by nearby development. The commission can also increase the role of local planners and resource agencies in permit decisions given the large scale of many renewable energy facilities. The state has invested in land conservation for decades, and we should not compromise that investment. Evaluating impacts through a climate adaptation lens is also critical to the future health of Vermont’s natural areas. Part of the equation when permitting projects should include solutions with smaller impacts, like rooftop solar and redevelopment of already degraded areas like landfills and abandoned industrial sites.
Third, the commission can also improve how energy efficiency is considered during the permit process. Expanding renewable energy must include aggressive efforts to rein in demand, rather than forever climbing up a growing hill. Energy efficiency measures remain some of the cheapest clean energy alternatives, and a proposed project should demonstrate that its power is needed and that the need cannot be met through reasonable reduction measures. If we are to transition to 90 percent renewable energy sources and protect the Vermont landscape we love, we as a state need to ensure that we are only building new power sources when and where they are truly needed.
Gov. Shumlin should extend the reporting deadline for this commission and broaden its mandate to include planning for the best places and types of energy development, rather than perpetuate the current piecemeal approach which frustrates developers and conservationists alike. If that is not possible, he should ask this group or another to address the broader energy issues, including what to do about the heating and transportation sectors that contribute tremendously to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The conservation community and Vermonters are counting on the governor to establish a sound foundation for our clean energy future.
The Wilderness Society
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