On Thursday, January 3, Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Sen. Bob Hartwell (D-Bennington) announced they would introduce a bill this legislative session that would place a moratorium on the construction of wind energy projects with a production capacity of 500 kilowatts or more. The moratorium seeks to prevent construction of wind projects until the siting process can be reviewed and changed. The bill also seeks to change the amount of control the Public Service Board (PSB) has over siting these projects, as well as a review and overhaul of the current process by which environmental impacts are reviewed, to ensure the preservation of Vermont’s ridgelines and natural habitats.
The 40-page bill states, “No statewide analysis and planning is performed to address the environmental and land use impacts of siting wind generation projects in Vermont. Instead, the Department of Public Service’s comprehensive energy plan, which recommends pursuing development of in-state renewable energy generation, touches on the potential land use impacts of this development, but does not contain a statewide analysis that assesses those impacts, and balances them against the potential benefits of such generation.”
Sen. Hartwell believes that the criteria under Act 250 must be put into the siting process, and towns need to have more say. Hartwell says the current “quasi-judicial” process by which PSB operates is broken, and as he bluntly states, is undemocratic. “The people don’t get a chance to participate,” said Hartwell. “It’s too expensive to participate, and it really has knocked a lot of people out of meaningful participation and knocked most towns out of participation. We want to transfer the process from the PSB to district commissions overseen by the Natural Resources Board. The district commission would hear the cases and give abutting property owners and towns the say they should have, and the status they don’t have.”
The bill also calls for the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to take a major role in the process of developing a statewide policy for siting wind generation plants and wind meteorological stations. The bill states, “The necessary regulation for energy generation projects is to set minimum environmental and land use standards that each generation project must meet. This area of regulation is not the primary expertise of the PSB. It is the area of the district environmental commissions and local land use authorities.”
Lukas Snelling, executive director of Energize Vermont and a supporter of the moratorium, agrees with the environmental protection aim of the bill, though his organization is not against the use of wind energy. “Our concern is that windmills have to be placed very specifically to be economically viable, and those locations can disrupt habitats in areas such as ridgelines where headwater streams begin.”
While Sens. Benning and Hartwell cited multiple projects in northern Vermont, no mention of the Deerfield Wind project was made during the bill’s unveiling.
But Sen. Hartwell says that the Deerfield Wind project raises some of the questions in the moratorium bill, though he was not aware the project is entirely in his district. “The original Searsburg project is in my district. There is this other proposal to build more in the Aiken Forest and I think that’s actually across the border in Windham County, but they’re close and they seem to have attracted attention in Wilmington, so certainly it’s close enough and raises some of the same issues.”
The Deerfield Wind project plan would allow Deerfield Wind LLC, a subsidiary of Iberdrola Renewables, the second largest wind operator in the United States, to erect 15 windmills along the ridges to the east and west of Route 8 in Searsburg and Readsboro, (both in Hartwell’s district) on National Forest land, and two miles from the George Aiken Wilderness. The project is currently tied up in US District Court where a motion for summary judgment filed by Vermonters for a Clean Environment will be heard on Monday, January 28.
The bill states, “During the moratorium, a person may complete construction of a wind generation plant or if the plant or station has received all required land use, siting, and environmental permits, certificates, and approvals, and, in the case of wind generation, the person has commenced construction on the plant.” Since construction has not begun on the Deerfield Wind project, the bill could block it.
Readsboro would see seven new wind turbines, each operating at two-megawatts, and Deerfield Wind would pay the town $11,000 per megawatt annually, totaling $154,000 per year. According to selectboard member Teddy Hopkins, changing the current process and instituting a moratorium would be detrimental to individual towns. “It would take decades to get anything done, and those who oppose wind power are trying to kill it through a long-term committee process,” said Hopkins. Hopkins believes that a town has the right to choose if they want windmills without every surrounding town’s permission.
“In my opinion Sen. Hartwell represents all the towns in Bennington County. Why is he not down here talking to the representatives of the town of Readsboro before he submits a Senate bill for approval? He must know the (Deerfield Wind) project is going on and I can only take from it myself that he’s turning a deaf ear to his constituents in Readsboro by not contacting the people here. I think he’s forgotten where Readsboro is, and maybe Readsboro may forget where Sen. Hartwell is come voting time.”
Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, believes that the bill is unnecessary because Gov. Peter Shumlin already created the Vermont Energy Generation Siting Commission.
According to the state’s website, the commission, established October 3, 2012, is charged with “surveying the best practices for siting approval of electric generation and for public participation and representation in the siting process, and to report to the Governor and to the Vermont Legislature on their findings by April 30, 2013.”
“Our preference is that the Legislature waits and sees what the siting committee comes up with for recommendations, and give them the consideration they are due instead of instituting a moratorium that sends a message that Vermont is not supportive of renewable energy and addressing climate change,” said Shupe.
But Sen. Hartwell says the siting commission has no authority to fight projects, but is instead gathering information he intends to use.
Rep. Tony Klein, chair of both the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee and the Joint House & Senate Energy Oversight Committee, says a moratorium would serve as a statement by the Legislature saying “no” to a particular private industry. He also thinks the moratorium is a poor business message for Vermont to send. Instead, Klein plans to introduce a land- use planning bill.
The approach will be to encourage all towns to adopt town plans and zoning for such projects and work with regional planning commissions and the Natural Resources Board to come up with statewide plans for where projects are allowed. “The simple way of looking at it is you identify the areas where you want development,” said Klein, “and where we all agree we don’t want development, which could include our ridgelines, and developers ahead of time will know where it’s OK to propose projects.”