Vermont Addresses Renewable Energy Siting Concerns

June, 28, 2016
Alex Cirra
Student Researcher
Renewable Energy

On Monday, June 13, 2016 Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed into law Senate Bill 260 (Act 174). This bill addresses regional and town energy planning improvements that will enhance community input into the siting of energy projects.   Legislators finalized S.260, after Gov. Shumlin vetoed the predecessor (S.230) in May because it included excessively stringent noise standards for wind turbines—standards that threatened to halt wind development in Vermont for an extended period.  This bill is based on recommendations offered by the Legislature’s Solar Siting Task Force.  Serving as Vice Chair, the Pace Energy and Climate Center’s Sam Swanson played an important role in the Task Force’s collaborative effort to strengthen the role Vermont communities may play in siting a growing fleet of solar electric generation facilities that will be located across Vermont to meet State Energy Plan goals.  

The Legislature formed the Solar Siting Task Force last year in response to complaints from many Vermont citizens. Representatives of various towns expressed their concern that Vermont’s siting regulations do not adequately incorporate local community development planning considerations regarding land use management and public participation. The Legislature appointed representatives from local government, renewable energy developers, citizen stakeholders, and state agencies responsible for energy siting.  Mr. Swanson was appointed as a “Vermont resident with public policy and environmental and energy expertise who is not affiliated with a public utility or developer of energy facilities” and selected by his Task Force colleagues to serve as the Vice Chair along with the Public Service Department Commissioner Chair.

This new statute provides regional planning commissions and towns with “substantial deference” before the Public Service Board when town plans have been determined to be consistent with state energy and climate goals.  The effect is to strengthen the role of Regional Planning Commissions as well as towns’ policymaking power when deciding the design and location of new solar generation.  The new law requires planning across sectors to include electricity generation, electric and thermal efficiency, and transportation.

S.260 has a number of goals including:

·      Improving integration of citizen participation for energy and land use planning before the Public Service Board in the process of developing renewable infrastructure

·      A standard for new wind generation facilities to minimize visual impact by installing radar-controlled lights on turbines

·      Enhancing citizen involvement through the creation of the Access to Public Service Board Working Group to engage the Board’s rulemaking with aesthetic mitigation throughout wind generation facilities

·      The creation of a one-year pilot within the Standard Offer Program to initiate renewable projects in “preferred locations” such as parking lots, rooftops, brownfields, closed landfills, gravel pits, and town designated areas

·      A comprehensible permitting process for group net-metered systems and rooftop systems that are primarily owned by customers

S.260 builds an essential link between local municipalities and state regulators. As Gov. Shumlin commented, “This new law provides a roadmap for how we continue to transform our energy system in Vermont while improving opportunities for our communities to have a say in this process. This comprehensive legislation brings to conclusion a...necessary discussion about how to best plan for the locally-produced clean energy we need."