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Vermont Senate Unanimously Approves Energy Act

By Ethan Peterson-New

On Friday, March 11, a Vermont Senate energy committee approved the Energy Development Improvement Act, which will implement siting procedures for renewable energy, offering subsidies to developers and more involvement from local communities.

The act was approved unanimously by a 5-0 vote, and now must pass through the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committees before being voted on in the Senate.

State Senator Brian Campion (D) said that the lack of dissent surrounding the bill was a positive sign moving forward.

“With a vote of 5-0, that’s a big committee vote. It’s a strong endorsement,” Campion said. “I think it will be interesting to see what the House does. I’m sure there will be some tweaks.”

In January, the Solar Siting Task Force wrote a report offering suggestions for how to determine where new solar projects should be built, many of which have been incorporated into the bill. The task force formed in response to ongoing concerns over the inadequacy of current protocols, which require projects to be submitted to the Public Service Board, which can approve or deny projects with little or no influence from municipal governments.

The new bill would take some power away from the Public Service Board (PSB) with its provision for “substantial deference” to local and regional plans. However, the PSB would still have the final say in the process.

In an interview with VTDigger, Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chairman Chris Bray called the bill a “game-changer for towns” that “creates a way for towns and regions to work with the state, planning for our energy future, as opposed to getting informed by the state.”

In keeping with the goal for community involvement, developers will be obligated to address concerns submitted by local townspeople in order for their projects to be approved.

Developers will also be required to have adequate funds to decommission existing projects that are no longer running efficiently.

Another crucial component of the bill is the subsidies it offers for renewable energy projects in preferred locations. These are sites where develop- ment would have the least detrimental environmental and economic impacts, such as parking lots, landfills, rooftops and quarries. The subsidies are intended to encourage sustainable development without harming local property values.

While the bill reforms the process for solar siting, it does not include rules that determine appropriate locations for new wind turbines. A proposed amendment that would have set mandatory distances between new wind farms and homes was rejected by a 3-2 vote.

Critics of the bill cite the lack of solar specifications, while noting that the bill’s subsidies are not necessarily a deterrent to developing outside of preferred areas. The bill passed without a clause, which would have required plans to show that “other benefits to the state and its residents outweigh the adverse impacts” of building outside preferred areas. Removing this piece of the legislation could limit the ability of towns and the PSB to regulate siting of new solar projects.

However, the committee hopes that with subsidies in place, and a more town-oriented planning process, the bill will provide Vermont with a better protocol for renewable energy projects.

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