Towns debate role of solar, legislators consider Act 248 reform
NEW HAVEN — As towns in Addison County field proposals for new solar power arrays, town officials and area legislators say they’d like to see communities have more influence over where projects can be sited, and how large they can be.
With its abundance of open, flat farmland and proximity to a major power transmission line, solar companies have zeroed in on New Haven as a prime site for solar arrays. The town’s planning commission estimates more than a dozen projects have been or will soon be proposed in the small town, including two that would be among the largest ever built in Vermont.
As utility projects, solar array siting is governed by the Act 248 process, under the discretion of the Public Service Board.
While towns may submit testimony and attempt to persuade the three-member tribunal, final authority lies with the Public Service Board. The board is not bound by local zoning or other municipal ordinances, though it may take town statutes into consideration.
This summer, that was not the case with a 50-kilowatt solar array off Dog Team Road proposed by SunCommon. The New Haven Planning Commission wrote to the board, arguing that the project did not meet several town zoning statutes, but the board approved the project anyway.
Solar companies also do not need to seek approval from towns before filing an application with the Public Service Board. Neighbors who live within 100 feet of the approved solar array site on Dog Team Road were dismayed that SunCommon did not present their proposal to the town first.
New Haven Planning Commission Co-chair Francie Caccavo said the Public Service Board could be a better advocate of the town.
“I don’t think they’re overly receptive,” Caccavo said. “They have awarded a contract that took into consideration some of our recommendations. They haven’t totally ignored us.”
Caccavo said the rigid structure of the Act 248 process leaves little room for towns and utility companies to find common ground before the board makes a decision. For smaller projects, the board typically asks for responses from parties to the project application, then makes a ruling. It is usually only in large proposals, such as the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline, that the board holds hearings and solicits expert testimony before approving or rejecting an application.
“The process is so staged,” Caccavo said. “There’s no room for conversation.”
Area residents who represent Addison County in the Legislature said solar is likely to come up for debate when the body reconvenes in January.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said he has been surprised to hear that residents of Addison County are just as upset over the expansion of solar proposals as they are about the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline.
“You might think they’re worlds apart, but the common denominator is the unhappiness people have about their limited role in shaping the proposals,” Bray said.
He said that residents have told him they don’t feel like their voices are heard by regulators in the capital.
“The thinking is that ‘the PSB is going to rule from Montpelier; we don’t have too much to say about it,’” Bray said.
Bray said the Public Service Board’s structure may need to be changed to keep up with the volume of project applications it receives. Traditionally, Bray said the board reviewed proposals from a few large projects from a handful of utilities.
“Now, many different entities bring many different projects on a regular basis,” Bray said. “We’re moving to decentralize our power, but we still have an entirely centralized planning and approval process in the Public Service Board.”
Bray said he will talk with fellow legislators about whether municipal and regional planning commissions could have more influence in the process, which he said could be more inclusive.
“There are so many people left out; we need to find a way for them to have a more meaningful role,” he said.
Bray said he does not support eliminating the Public Service Board in favor of local control, as the state has an interest in finding ways for different regions to work together to meet Vermont’s energy needs, as well as the Legislature’s goal to get 90 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2050.
Town and regional commissions, as well as interested individuals, can participate in the Act 248 process as intervenors, or parties to the case. But Bray said this is expensive, as intervenors often need to hire attorneys to navigate the complex legal lexicon of the Public Service Board.
“One of the other things that goes along with this is making it more affordable for people to participate,” Bray said.
The New Haven Democrat said he wants to explore the possibility of creating a public office dedicated to helping intervenors participate in a significant way, without having to shell out big bucks for a lawyer.
“It might be sort of a public officer, an ombudsman in this process with legal information about how to intervene and participate without hiring a lawyer,” Bray said.
The Legislature this spring enacted a law that more than tripled the cap on net metering in Vermont, as a way to encourage the expansion of solar energy. Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, and Bray said they support expanding solar, but now that towns in Addison County have been inundated with solar proposals, more oversight is needed. Ayer said she wants to make sure towns benefit from projects as well, beyond the property taxes they collect on land used for solar arrays.
“Locals need to be involved to some extent, and there’s needs to be something in it for the host community,” Ayer said.
Ayer said she wants to work with her colleagues in Montpelier to find ways to compensate towns that produce or transmit a disproportionate amount of the state’s energy. She said this could possibly take the form of a tax that directly benefits municipalities. Presently, the majority of taxes on property go to the state education fund.
New Haven is a prime example of a town that bears this energy burden. The Vermont Electric Company (VELCO) power line corridor transverses its landscape, and soon also will the Vermont Gas pipeline. Just two of the planned arrays, at 5 megawatts each, would produce enough energy to power 1,600 homes annually. New Haven only has about 600 homes, and the Cross Pollination solar farm built in 2012 already produces enough energy for 400.
Bray said he’d also support a bill that would provide more incentives for towns hosting many solar projects. He suggested a quota system that would reward towns that produce more energy than they consume.
“If a town exceeds that quota, there’s some recognition for that, and it could be in the form of the payments for the community, to help lower the town tax rates,” Bray said.
However Montpelier tackles the issue, Bray said the Legislature and executive agencies, like the Department of Public Service, need to acknowledge how energy project proposals have changed in the last few decades.
“The energy scene has changed tremendously in the last 20 years, and our process for developing and approving energy projects has not kept pace,” Bray said. “So, when I get back to Montpelier, I’m going to look at how we can make changes to help us keep pace.”
Ayer said if legislators determine that reform of the regulatory process is necessary, she’d support a bill to help the Public Service Board include more local input.
“Whatever laws we make, they follow,” Ayer said.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, agreed.
“I think we need to go back to the Legislature and fine tune the process,” he said.
COMPANIES SEEK SUPPORT
While not required by the Act 248 process, some solar companies are reaching out to towns in order to build a productive rather than acrimonious relationship.
GroSolar, the company that hopes to build two 40-acre, 5-megawatt arrays in New Haven, first presented its plans to the selectboard in September. On Tuesday, the company made its case before the town planning commission. Green Peaks, a solar firm hoping to install an array on Field Days Road, also presented.
Local legislators who attended the meeting were grateful that the companies reached out to communities before filing formal applications.
“I applaud them; this is the right kind of approach for our community,” said Smith. “It’s been frustrating in the past when a project comes in with a Certificate of Public Good, when there’s been little dialogue with the town.”
Duane Peterson, the co-president of SunCommon, acknowledged that the Waterbury company erred in not presenting its proposal to New Haven town officials before seeking Public Service Board approval. He said even though not bound by the Act 248 process, SunCommon pledges to educate residents and town boards about its proposals.
“We’ve learned in the one that we’ve done, that we need to go above and beyond what the law requires, and voluntarily go into a town and present to the selectboard and energy committee,” Peterson said. “People want to be heard, and they deserve to know what’s going on in their community.”
New Haven’s Caccavo said she thought by reaching out to the town, the solar companies demonstrated they wanted to accommodate residents’ concerns.
“It is encouraging,” she said. “I think it shows good effort on their part, to be willing to talk with us about what they’re proposing. Once it goes to the PSB it’s more difficult for us.”
While many in town have shared concerns about solar arrays, Caccavo says she doesn’t want the planning commission to be obstructionist. Rather, she hopes regulators give more of a voice to towns and residents, who are on the front lines of the state’s push towards solar energy.
“I don’t think it would make sense to say no to solar, but I think we need to be careful with how these projects come into play,” Caccavo said. “We’re not interested in continuing with fossil fuels, we don’t have the option of nuclear power, so if you want to turn your lights on, you have to be realistic.”