RESET takes a step forward

House Bill 40, also known as the RESET bill, made it through the Senate Natural Resources Committee friday. Unscathed, for the most part.

RESET, for those just joining us, is the overhaul of Vermont’s renewable energy policy. It has already been adopted by the House. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it. For the most part, it’s been making good progress in a low-key way; with so many other Big Things on this year’s agenda, RESET has attracted little attention. Which I suspect is exactly how its supporters want it.

It has drawn some fire from the anti-renewables crowd, who want to change the siting-approval process in ways that would make it much harder to build renewables. From their point of view, that’s a good thing. My top priority is climate change, so I think it’d be a bad thing. Mostly.

The one and only anti-renewables member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee is John Rodgers, putative Democrat from the Northeast Kingdom. Generally, the Senator is very pro-business and development (he’s a cheerleader for the Bill Stenger EB-5 project), but he’s a staunch opponent of ridgeline wind who’s branching out into anti-solar as well.

Rodgers was the wild card in SNRE’s consideration of H.40. He was clearly in the minority, but he’s a persistent cuss, and he brought some amendments with him to Friday morning’s hearing.

For the most part, he was on the short end of 4-1 or 3-2 votes (Diane Snelling was the waverer)… but finally, late in the morning, he actually won a round. He proposed an amendment that would allow municipalities to establish setback and screening* requirements on energy installations, as long as the requirements don’t have the practical effect of banning such installations.

*Setback: distance from the nearest roadway. Screening: Fences, trees, etc., to obscure the installation from public view.

And the reliably pro-renewables Sen. Mark McDonald unexpectedly voted yes, ensuring the amendment’s passage on a 3-2 vote.

It might sound harmless, but renewable advocates see it as opening the door to all kinds of battles over how punitive a siting requirement can be without violating the law. What if, for example, a town required a 1-mile setback from any public road? That might technically leave open some sites, while eliminating all the desirable ones.

The committee seemed a bit taken aback by McDonald’s vote, which he didn’t really explain very well. Committee chair Chris Bray called for a break to allow legislative counsel time to redraft the amended bill. And also, I suspect, to allow time to work with McDonald and Snelling on ways to soften the Rodgers amendment.

SNRE went back to work in midafternoon, with an amendment to the amendment that will effectively derail it. The new plan was to task the Legislature’s Joint Energy Committee with studying the issues and recommending a siting process. If JEC does so by July 1, 2016, the Rodgers amendment would die. If the JEC failed to meet that date, the Rodgers amendment would become law.

Which should give lawmakers plenty of time. It was a transparent enough weakening of his amendment that Rodgers voted against the bill. But it had enough of a whiff of effectiveness to keep Snelling and McDonald on board. H.40 passed on a 4-1 vote.

The bill still has to get through two other Senate committees — Transportation and Finance — and pass through the Senate. But so far, so pretty good for an important and decently-crafted piece of legislation that would greatly assist Vermont in meeting its renewable energy targets.

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