By Sen. Christopher Bray
Vermonters want a greater voice in solving this century’s greatest challenge—how to change our economy from one powered by burning fossil fuels to one powered by clean, renewable energy.
Over the past several years, the legislature has struggled to find the right way to promote this energy transformation while also empowering Vermonters to help determine how we make the transition. We have brought our hearts and mind to this work, and now we’re offering an answer.
On Friday, March 11, after more than two months of gathering testimony from Vermonters —town, regional and state elected officials, citizens, planners, electric companies, renewable energy developers, electrical engineers, experts, and activists of all stripes— the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously passed Senate Bill 230. This bill creates a way for towns and regions to work with the state in planning our renewable energy future.
This bill integrates, for the first time, land use planning with energy generation planning.
Currently, nearly all energy generation planning takes place at the state level, and nearly all land use planning takes place at the town and regional levels. As we move to renewables — solar, hydro and wind projects that are broadly distributed across the landscape — it is essential that we have a productive, respectful dialog between all the participants.
We need the state to lead in the orderly development of Vermont’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels because it’s a large and complex changeover of our electrical grid that will be underway for decades and the work involves many, many projects that must work together in order to keep electricity safe, reliable, and affordable. We need towns to find the ways to site these projects in the locations that work best for the community.
Some Vermonters and many towns are telling us that too much of the energy discussion has been one-way, originating with the state and coming top-down. The committee listened. Our bill, S.230, creates a more balanced, two-way communication.
Every renewable energy project requires a permit, issued by the Public Service Board (PSB). When an application is submitted, towns and regions have the statutory right to oppose or request changes to a project by arguing that it conflicts with their town plan. Currently, such plans are given “due consideration.” Some Vermonters think this is too little influence.
S.230 offers Vermonters—through their towns and regional planning commissions—a much higher level of influence, “substantial deference,” provided that the town or region has worked with the state and been certified as a partner working to meet Vermont’s overall energy goals. A certified town plan, when being considered by the PSB, must be honored unless the board determines that there is clear evidence that the general good of the state outweighs the the plan. This is a very high threshold for the board to surpass.
And it’s a game changer for our state.
Whereas now the burden is on a town to demonstrate that its plan should override the public good associated with a project, under S.230, the burden of proof shifts to require that the board demonstrate why a town plan that has already been certified as helping Vermont meet our renewable energy goals should be overridden.
This bill gives Vermonters the power to plot the course to renewable energy, and we know this can work. The state has been conducting a pilot program over the last year with three regional planning commissions interested in such coordinated energy development planning, and the results are very encouraging. Former potential opponents have been converted into working partners.
In the midst of working through this challenging moment, I encourage all of us to pause and appreciate a number of positive facts about renewable energy development in our state:
the vast majority of renewable energy projects are built without controversy—for example, there are over 5,000 net-metered solar projects in our state, a number that surprises most Vermonters precisely because so many have been inconspicuously blended into the landscape and placed on rooftops;
our move to renewables has helped drive Vermont electric rates down; in fact, Vermonters now enjoy the second lowest—and most stable—rates in New England;
every renewable project built reduces destructive emissions within the New England electrical system of which we are an integral part;
our state now has over 16,000 people working in the clean energy industry, and the growth of jobs in this sector has outpaced the general economy by more than 2:1; and
poll after poll tells us that Vermonters strongly support the move to renewables.
The legislature recognizes all these positives as well as the changes to our landscape that are controversial. Under S.230, Vermonters are offered a means to avoid conflict by planning in advance. I predict that less and less often will Vermonters be saying “no” to projects because their focus will have shifted to saying “yes” to projects developed in the locations and sites they prefer.
We will be rebuilding our energy system for decades to come. And throughout the decades required to undertake this work, S.230 will provide Vermonters with a greater voice and an opportunity to work together through an integrated energy and planning strategy.
I have always believed that enduring, positive change is based on collaboration. This bill fosters the collaboration we so clearly need in this time of profound challenge.
Christopher Bray is from Addison County and chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.