Vermont bill merges energy policy, land-use planning

Vermont (39.5 out of 50)

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A yearslong fight in Vermont over where to build renewable energy projects was punctuated Friday with a Senate committee's approval of a bill designed to give cities, towns and regional planning commissions more say in where solar power, wind power and similar projects are located.

Critics of the way the process works said they were dissatisfied. They contend that developers are despoiling Vermont's farm fields with solar panels and mountaintops with wind towers and have been following the committee's work closely since January.

Vermont has a goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, but its system for determining sites for utility project dates from decades past, when electric companies would go to the Public Service Board trying to get it to agree that a new, large, centralized generating plant was in the best interests of the public.

People on both sides of the renewable energy debate say that in an age of distributed generation — small wind, solar, biogas and other generators scattered across the landscape — the state's review process is due for an update.

"This integrates our electrical system with land-use planning, and there was no real linkage before," said Sen. Christopher Bray, the Addison County Democrat who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

The bill calls for cities, towns and regional planning commissions to strengthen significantly the portions of their plans dealing with energy, and then for the Public Service Board, the three-member panel that reviews energy projects, to give the towns and regions more deference. It sets up incentives for energy development in "preferred sites" like closed landfills, old industrial zones, rooftops and other already disturbed landscapes.

But the committee took out one of the toughest provisions in an earlier draft of the bill calling for projects to be built outside preferred sites only if they demonstrate that "other benefits to the state and its residents outweigh the adverse impacts."

Mark Whitworth, president of the board of Energize Vermont, a group that has criticized the process, said he was not impressed.

"The purpose of the bill is to give people the impression that the Legislature is addressing the concerns of Vermonters without actually addressing the concerns of Vermonters," he said.

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