• State needs a thoughtful plan
    March 20,2013

    The Vermont Natural Resources Council has been working for 50 years to protect Vermont’s environment and give Vermonters a voice in development decisions that affect natural resources and their communities. We are also deeply concerned about the twin threats of climate change and fossil fuel scarcity.

    We believe that developing renewable energy, both in Vermont and elsewhere, is necessary. Like most Vermonters, we don’t believe environmental protection and renewable energy development are mutually exclusive goals. 

    Unfortunately, the increasingly acrimonious debate over energy policy pits these two goals against each other. A result of that debate is controversial energy legislation, S.30, that will come to the Senate floor in the next few days. 

    VNRC is supportive of most efforts to strengthen environmental protection for all types of land development, and we recognize the need to improve the process for siting and constructing energy facilities. For this reason, VNRC joined other conservation organizations in calling on Gov. Shumlin to convene a commission to examine this very issue. He did, and that work is wrapping up shortly, the results of which should inform changes to the state’s regulatory and planning processes. Unfortunately, S.30 gets ahead of this process.

    The bill does contain some positive provisions, including the creation of a legislative oversight committee to prepare for, and respond to, the soon-to-be-released recommendations of the siting commission. Other provisions of the bill, however, would be counterproductive. These include:

    n Pre-empting the work of the siting commission that was charged with identifying improvements to how energy facilities are sited and regulated in Vermont. The commission has performed that task in a comprehensive, professional and transparent manner. This bill, however, predetermines certain outcomes before the commission is allowed to complete its work.

    n It holds energy generation — including renewable energy generation — to a more rigorous standard of review than the transmission of energy from nuclear, coal, large hydro, natural gas or other technologies, because it would apply Act 250 criteria more stringently to renewable generation projects than to transmission projects. This is not the time to tilt the playing field in favor of dirty energy.

    n It singles out one technology — wind energy — for meticulous scrutiny of the potential health and environmental impacts, rather than evaluating the costs (economic, health, environmental, etc.) and benefits of all potential energy technologies. Only through an objective analysis of the various technologies will Vermonters be able to evaluate the inevitable trade-offs that come with our reliance on electricity.

    n It upsets an important, decades-long balance of power between municipalities, regions and the state regarding the review and permitting of energy generation projects that serve a statewide interest. The bill establishes a regional energy siting process — which VNRC welcomes — but gives absolute power to municipalities to bar energy projects. While the siting commission is likely to suggest adjusting this power-sharing relationship next month, S.30 would create inconsistencies in existing law and abandon the requirement that municipalities plan for renewable energy development and adopt plans that are consistent with regional plan policies.

    n It prompts unnecessary uncertainty for renewable energy developers at a time when the state is attempting to meet ambitious energy goals. Making significant changes to the regulatory framework for one year, with the promise that additional changes will be made in 2014, creates an unstable regulatory climate. This is unnecessary given that the commissioner of the Department of Public Service has testified that it’s likely no large wind projects will come under review in the coming year.

    Since its inception, VNRC has been guided by a site-specific approach to analysis of large development projects generally and, more often in recent years, large energy development projects, including large wind generation, biomass, hydro generation and nuclear power. Our most recent involvement in such proceedings — including Vermont Yankee, the Searsburg wind project and the proposed Springfield biomass project — has been as advocates for water quality, wildlife, forest health and efficiency.

    At the same time, VNRC has supported broad policies in the Legislature to advance renewable energy development, including the standard offer program and net metering legislation, among others. Such policies have been effective in reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and preparing for the inevitable shutdown of Vermont Yankee.

    There is likely no organization in the state of Vermont that has grappled with the issue of wind more than VNRC. We care deeply about protecting Vermont’s environment, communities and quality of life. We believe we can stay true to these values if we approach realigning our energy future carefully.

    The reality of climate change, however, is that Vermont is facing the greatest crisis in human history. Every person, every state and every nation must do everything humanly possible to stop our reliance on the dirty energy that is destroying our planet. Let’s stop making these mutually exclusive goals, stop putting up ill-fitting obstacles and put in place a more thoughtful system for making energy decisions than would result from S.30.

    Johanna Miller is the energy program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

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