Something kind of remarkable happened last week, not that anybody in the media noticed. The Vermont Public Utility Commission dismissed an astonishingly picayune case after more than six years of kicking it around.
Case number 8585, which you’ll need to know if you want to look up the documents, pitted the Public Service Department against one David Blittersdorf, prominent renewable energy developer and bete noire of the Energy NIMBY crowd.
But the case wasn’t about a large-scale wind turbine or a field full of solar panels. Nope, it was over a meteorological tower that Blittersdorf built in 2010 on his own land in Irasburg.
The PSD opened its investigation in 2015, after local officials queried whether Blittersdorf had obtained PUC approval for the tower in the form of a certificate of public good.
The PSD took up the case, asserting that Blittersdorf violated the rules by failing to get a CPG. The concept of PUC authority over a structure completely unrelated to energy, utility operations or communications is, on its face, ridiculous. But the PSD pursued the case for six full years. Last week, finally, the PUC tossed the whole thing out.
The Case Summary, with its lengthy list of hearings, postponements, motions and delays, is like something out of Kafka. And what punishment was the PSD recommending?
A fine of $2,500.
Two thousand five hundred dollars.
I wonder how many billable hours were racked up, and how many taxpayer dollars were frittered away, over this clown show.
The PSD claimed jurisdiction because Blittersdorf was considering a large-scale wind project on the site.*
Which he did, in fact, build; it’s known as Kingdom Community Wind, and it opened in 2012 — three years before the Irasburg select board concocted its complaint.
*The man himself notified me that, actually he did not build KCW. It was built by Green Mountain Power and the Vermont Electric Coop and opened in 2013. This actually makes the PSD’s action a little bit more ridiculous.
Meteorological towers have been built all over Vermont without the PUC saying boo. So why take action in this case? Because it was Blittersdorf.
Reading the report filed by Hearing Officer John Cotter, you definitely get the sense that he was playing Inspector Javert to Blittersdorf’s Jean Valjean. He repeatedly assigns the worst possible motives to Blittersdorf. He cites the developer’s behavior in unrelated cases — including cases where Blittersdorf himself was not charged, but did have some association with the parties involved. Cotter complained that Blittersdorf didn’t attend an evidentiary hearing that he didn’t have to attend. Cotter asserted that the public interest was harmed because Blittersdorf’s failure to pursue an unnecessary CPG “diminished the credibility of the regulatory process.”
But even with both his thumbs and several fingers on the scale, all Cotter could recommend was a lousy $2,500 fine.
So, you might ask, why did Blittersdorf fight this case for so long? It would’ve been much cheaper to just pay the fine.
First, knuckling under would have created a precedent that the PUC does, in fact, have jurisdiction over weather towers. That would have created a new burden on renewable energy developers, and they already face plenty of those, thank you very much.
Second, it would have branded Blittersdorf as a violator. Under the PUC’s rules, that could have been used against him in future cases. As a multiple offender, he would be subject to bigger penalties.
Under Gov. Phil Scott, the PSD and PUC have been decidedly unfriendly to large-scale wind. In fact, they’ve managed to bring wind development to a screeching halt in Vermont. This case produced a split on the three-member PUC; chair Tony Roisman, a Scott appointee, voted to impose the fine and force Blittersdorf to pay court reporter fees. Margaret Cheney and Sarah Hofmann, both appointed by Peter Shumlin, voted to throw out the case.
Hofmann’s participation in Case 8585 was one of her final acts on the PUC. When her term expired this year, Scott appointed former PSD staffer Riley Allen to fill her seat. If Allen had joined the commission a few months earlier, the outcome of this case might well have been completely different.
And it would have been a gross abuse of the PUC’s authority.
I’ve got more to say about the PUC, which desperately needs to be turned upside down and given a good shaking. That’ll be my next post.