So, Why Doesn’t Climate Change Get Top Priority in Permitting New Energy Projects?

A lot of you probably know this already, but I just found out and frankly, I’m stupefied.

In the criteria for approving new energy projects, climate change is practically reduced to a footnote.

For those just joining us, here’s the process as I understand it. Let’s say a developer wants to build a ground-based solar array to produce clean energy. It applies to the Public Service Department for a “certificate of public good.” The PSD goes through a very complicated process to determine whether a CPG is in order. It reports to the Public Utility Commission, a three-member “quasi-judicial body” that decides to issue or deny the CPG.

In the process, the PSD and PUC consider numerous factors. And climate change merits nothing more than a kinda-sorta passing mention.

Can somebody explain that to me?

Because to my mind, there is no greater public good than mitigating climate change. Is that not patently obvious?

The criteria for a CPG are established in state law. Specifically, in 30 V.S.A. § 248. The list of criteria includes:

  • The project must “not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region.”
  • A ground-based solar array must comply with relevant municipal bylaws, unless the PUC determines that the bylaws are overly restrictive.
  • The PUC “shall give substantial deference to the land conservation measures and specific policies contained in a duly adopted regional and municipal plan.”
  • The project “Is required to meet the need for present and future demand for service that could not otherwise be provided in a more cost-effective manner.”
  • It “will not adversely affect system stability and reliability.”
  • It “will result in an economic benefit to the State and its residents.”
  • It “will not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water purity, the natural environment, the use of natural resources, and the public health and safety.” This section says “due consideration” must be given to a variety of criteria, including impact on agricultural soils and “greenhouse gas impacts.”

There it is! You have to wade through regional development, local laws, land conservation plans, the stability of the electric grid, the economic benefit, and a laundry list of esthetic, historical and environmental impacts — and then, and only then does “greenhouse gas impacts” get the briefest of mentions.

The list of criteria continues:

  • A company’s investment in the project must be “consistent with the principles for resource selection expressed in that company’s approved least-cost integrated plan.” So, cost again.
  • The project must comply “with the electric energy plan approved by the [Public Service] Department.”
  • It cannot have an undue impact on waters “designated as outstanding resource waters by the Secretary of Natural Resources.”

This section of the law goes on and on and on, so much so that I won’t even try to count the paragraphs. And climate change, the most urgent issue facing the planet, is practically buried in a morass of criteria.

To me, that’s just fucknuts dumb. Climate change ought to get star billing. It should be printed in bright neon colors in a bold underlined font, preferably at least 48 point. It ought to scream at you off the page.

It ought to be the first among all the criteria — something the PSD and PUC absolutely cannot ignore. They should still have the power to deny a renewable project, but only if they can make a compelling case for their decision.

If the law were written that way, we wouldn’t have to worry about arguments and decisions that, at most, barely touch on climate change. We wouldn’t get absurdities like the PSD’s six-year effort to find David Blittersdorf guilty of some picayune offense — any picayune offense would do — for building a meteorological tower that helped decide if a wind farm was feasible on his land.

And we wouldn’t get the PSD bending over backwards to deny a CPG to a proposed solar array in Manchester Town. The PSD’s hearing officer recommends killing the project for esthetic reasons — even though the town Select Board and Planning Commission both approved the plan. Planning Director Janet Hurley told the Bennington Banner that opposition to the project involves “a handful of people” who live near the site.

In case you think Hurley is a pro-solar fanatic, the hearing officer himself wrote that the project would be visible to “approximately 10 residences or businesses.”

Ten.

Approximately.

It’s ridiculous. It’s counterproductive, it’s sad, and it’s stupid. It’s a big fat barrier to developing our portfolio of home-grown renewable energy. And it’s the result of a law that fails to properly account for climate change in energy decision-making.

Can we please update this thing?

I mean, after all, if we allow climate change to come at us like a Shinkansen, our precious esthetic resources, our view sheds, our flora and fauna and our waters, outstanding or otherwise, will not be spared in the onslaught.

12 thoughts on “So, Why Doesn’t Climate Change Get Top Priority in Permitting New Energy Projects?

  1. Richard Ley

    We just saw the climate change…

    It will change again in october..

    We just saw dirty air from another state coming into the state of Vermont.

    How many dollars will be stolen from the taxpayers before they wake up to the fraud that is being perpetrated on them?

    Reply
  2. David Blittersdorf

    We as a state are committing environmental, energy and social suicide.

    Instead of killing wind and solar, we need to stop fossil fuel appliance sales now!

    Rear view mirror thinking!

    Reply
  3. Annette Smith

    I don’t know who is feeding you this stuff but if you would like to have a rational discussion about the very challenging (for everyone) PUC process, give me a call. It is obvious you do not have much knowledge of this topic.

    Reply
      1. walter h moses

        Tells you all you need about John S Walters. He sticks with his knowledge which is wanting. No conversation needed, he’s RIGHT!

  4. Catxman

    The government changes but slowly. Procedures that were in place before climate warnings really got going … stay the course, drowning out new changes. If the government were private enterprise, it might be different, but it’s not. Government is a slow-moving beast.

    — Catxman

    http://www.catxman.wordpress.com

    Reply
  5. Anthony Iarrapino

    Thank you for calling attention to this important topic, John. Since the departure of Rep. Tony Klein, the legislature has not taken a serious look at the question of whether our renewable energy permitting process is in step with our “commitment” to fighting climate change. There are so many legacy aspects of Section 248 that made sense for fossil fueled grid that contributes to the climate crisis, but are ill fitting in the case of solar and wind power. Meanwhile, many of the recent changes to the permitting process that the Legislature has made or has let the PUC make through its rulemaking authority have, by piecemeal, made the process harder for well-sited renewable energy projects to get permitted.

    What is less understood, but very real, is that many projects never even make it to the PUC phase because the gauntlet of regulatory hurdles that renewable developers need to clear is so daunting and the number of stakeholders with diverging interests that need to be satisfied is so numerous that many otherwise suitable sites are knocked out of consideration early in the development process because the risk of moving them forward is too great. This is a real shame not just because it holds Vermont back from making progress toward climate change solutions, but also for the climate heroes who are excited to have their private property be part of the solution to climate change and to benefit financially in the process. Many of these willing landowners are farmers looking to supplement income during a difficult time for the farming economy.

    Vermont has long been spoiled because we’ve imported electricity from places like HydroQuebec and Seabrook Nuclear–allowing others to bear the brunt of the aesthetic and environmental impacts of those large energy facilities and the transmission infrastructure required to carry power from far away into our state. We are also spoiled because we are part of a regional grid that still relies on fracked gas, some coal, and occasionally oil when we hit peak loads–again allowing others to deal with the impacts of keeping the lights on (the cars charged, the heat pumps pumping) here in Vermont. Again, allowing others to deal with the environmental consequences of fossil fueled energy, when we have so much potential to do relatively lower-impact renewable development here at home, capturing the economic benefit of renewable projects in the process.

    This isn’t just the fault of what is or is not in the law. To be sure, the legislature needs to step up. But it is also the fault of how regulators at state agencies and the PUC choose to interpret the law. The regulators are in silos and seem inclined to use their discretion consistently in favor of making it harder to develop solar power in this state, treating it like it is just the same as any other commercial or residential development. They lack balance and perspective. Actually, in some cases it is harder to permit solar than it would be to do box-store development (see the Bradford case you wrote about some months ago as one example) or to do McMansion development, which often involves unregulated clear cutting for large trophy lawns and long driveways into otherwise unfragmented forests.

    As climate change impacts get worse and worse in Vermont, it’s time to make permitting climate solutions easier.

    Reply
  6. Frederick Weston

    John, Title 30, Section 218c requires that Vermont’s regulated energy utilities prepare and submit to the PUC (not PSD) least-cost, integrated resources plans, described as follows:

    (a)(1) A “least-cost integrated plan” for a regulated electric or gas utility is a plan for meeting the public’s need for energy services, after safety concerns are addressed, at the lowest present value life cycle cost, including environmental and economic costs, through a strategy combining investments and expenditures on energy supply, transmission, and distribution capacity, transmission and distribution efficiency, and comprehensive energy efficiency programs. Economic costs shall be assessed with due regard to:
    (A) the greenhouse gas inventory developed under the provisions of 10 V.S.A. § 582;
    (B) the State’s progress in meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals;
    (C) the value of the financial risks associated with greenhouse gas emissions from various power sources; and
    (D) consistency with section 8001 (renewable energy goals) of this title.

    The central cause of climate change–greenhouse gas emissions–is, as you can see, to be addressed by these plans. Your concern that such plans are focused only on cost (i.e., direct financial cost) is incorrect: the inclusion of environmental costs, which are not easily quantified, if quantifiable at all, means that the plans–and therefore the review of them by the PUC–must account, in some measure, for the societal costs that resource choices impose.

    Now I agree that climate change is an existential threat of a kind we’ve never seen before (nuclear annihilation being of another sort) and its urgency demands immediate and, as one of the authors of the IPCC report released today said, “transformational” change. And while I think that the deployment of PV and wind generation should, as a general matter, be accorded a rebuttable presumption of being a good thing, devoutly to be wished, I don’t look to a modification Section 248 to produce the kind of transformation needed–or to make all that much of a difference in renewables investment in the state. The PUC already has sufficient authority to do what you think needs to be done. A public advocate (i.e., the PSD) and administration that don’t appear to particularly interested in securing desired outcomes (witness the executive branch’s lack of enthusiasm for the work of the legislatively-mandated Climate Council) are far bigger obstacles than what are, if you think about them soberly, a quite reasonable set of complementary considerations to be addressed when siting energy investments in the state.

    Most of Vermont’s electricity comes from resources that don’t emit greenhouse gases as a by-product of production: Hydro-Quebec, some nuclear, significant and growing renewables, and, perhaps most important, end-use efficiency. And it’s only going to get better, as our renewable portfolio requirements increase. If one recognizes that the most important things we can do to combat climate change are to “decarbonize” electricity and electrify transportation and buildings, then one’s first concern should be about how to design and operate a power system that relies on the variable output of renewables to meet ever-growing new demands for electricity. We can do it. We know pretty much how to do it–and we know that it can’t be done state-by-smug state. That’s a far too costly (yes, cost matters) and slow an approach. Of critical importance now is to operate our grid and the grids of our neighbors–New York, Quebec, Atlantic Canada and eventually Ontario and the mid-Atlantic states–in a cohesive, integrated fashion that takes advantage of the diversity in generation and demand, especially flexible demand, across a broad geography, to minimize the cost of decarbonization and maximize reliability and resilience.

    One’s second concern–but one that by no means need await resolution of the first–should be cars and buildings. They are the two largest sources, by far, of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. I encourage you to direct your outrage at the feeble progress we’re making on them. It’s especially outrageous when you see that the solutions to them–improved weatherization and building envelope efficiency, fuel-switching, and EVs–are accompanied by other outcomes–lower energy costs, improved indoor air quality and public health, and higher property values–that redound to everyone’s, especially our most vulnerable fellow citizens’, benefit.

    You missed the forest for the trees in the blog, and mischaracterized some of the trees to boot. I gladly renew my offer to sit down and chat with you about these matters.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I’ll say a few things here. First, I’m about to write a post about a proposed solar array that’s run into all sorts of trouble for no good reason. The Hearing Officer’s report in that case is a wonderful indictment of the whole system. Second, I’ve heard from multiple people who are trying to develop renewables, and they all say the PSD/PUC is almost unworkable for them. Third, thanks for the “state-by-smug-state” characterization. There’s no question that large-scale action must be taken, but it doesn’t excuse every state and country from doing what it can on its own.

      Reply

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