I’ve heard from several enewable energy developers that the Public Service Department and Public Utility Commission make it extremely difficult to site new energy projects in Vermont. The best evidence for this is a document from within the PSD itself. It shows a process that seems designed to stymie renewable energy development. Since climate change is no longer deniable, this is entirely backward and counterproductive.
The document is a Hearing Officer’s recommendation regarding a proposed 500 kW solar array that would be built by MHG Solar on Richville Road in Manchester Town. (There’s a good story about it in the Bennington Banner.) The Officer goes through page after page of project compliance with PUC standards… and then decides it shouldn’t be built, based solely on some remarkably flimsy esthetic considerations. This, despite the fact that an independent aesthetics consultant hired by the PSD found that the project would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.
The MHG proposal is a textbook example of how to site and design a solar installation. The plan is well thought-out and takes into account every possible objection, and yet the Officer is recommending denial.
The PUC has yet to make its decision. In fact, the commission has scheduled a site visit for this Friday. It may be the developer’s last opportunity to overcome the Hearing Officer’s report.
The Officer’s entire 40-page report (downloadable from the PSD’s website) reveals an apparent bias against renewable energy. If this is typical of the PSD/PUC work product, it’s clear that a thorough reform needs to take place.
The Town of Manchester and the Bennington County Regional Planning Commission have both designated the site as “a preferred site” for an energy project. Town and regional officials approved the project.
The Officer’s own report documents how the proposal was carefully crafted to minimize any negative impacts. Just one example: If fencing is built around the array, there will be openings along the bottom to allow for migration of wood turtles. That’s the kind of attention to detail that characterizes the proposal.
The Hearing Officer reviewed the plan’s compliance with a long list of criteria for approving such projects. (That list was outlined in a previous post.) The Officer found no undue effects on air or water quality, historic sites, the natural environment, public health and safety, outstanding resource waters, greenhouse gas emissions*, waterways or wetlands, flooding potential, soil erosion, traffic, waste disposal, wildlife habitat, endangered species, or municipal services. The proposal complies with statutory setback requirements.
*Speaking of which, I noted in my previous post that this is the only mention of climate change in the long list of PUC criteria. What I didn’t realize is that they consider only the project’s emissions — not its contribution to fighting climate change by producing renewable energy. In other words, climate change doesn’t come into the PUC process at all. That’s astounding.
Various state agencies weighed in on the proposal. The Agency of Natural Resources raised questions about groundwater impacts and flooding concerns; MHG agreed to abide by ANR conditions for approval. The Agency of Agriculture raised issues about farm soils; MHG agreed to abide by Ag Agency conditions.
MHG also agreed to conduct archeological investigations and mitigation if necessary, and promised that at the end of its useful life, the array would be decommissioned and restored to its current state. The equipment would be reused, recycled or disposed of in accordance with state law and regulations.
After all that, the Hearing Officer balked at aesthetics. And his criteria were incredibly picky. In his own report, he acknowledged that “approximately ten residences or businesses near or adjacent to the Project site would have visibility of the Project.”
That’s NIMBYism at its worst.
As for spoiling the view of passing motorists, the Officer concluded that the project would be visible to travelers on Richville Road for “approximately 26 seconds.”
Local and regional officials approved the project, but a handful of nearby residents have continued to fight it. They bombarded the PSD with possible objections, none of which turned out to have any merit. One example: They asked whether the project would leach PFAS chemicals into the groundwater. The Officer’s response: “There is no evidence in the record suggesting that the Project’s panels would contain any PFAS.”
MHG would plant trees to minimize the array’s visibility. But it can’t plant tall trees because they could block views of Mt. Equinox. The Officer acknowledged this, but still objected to the mitigation because (a) the trees would take several years to reach effective height, and (b) the trees wouldn’t help in the winter because they are deciduous.
Come on now. If that’s what you’re objecting to, then no developer can meet your criteria for viewshed mitigation. Are they supposed to only use fully mature evergreen trees that won’t continue to grow? Ridiculous.
The topper, for me, was a statement near the end of the Officer’s report:
There is no need to put a thumb on the scale in favor of an individual net-metering project to achieve Vermont’s policy goals.
The idea that considering climate change amounts to putting a thumb on the scale is objectionable in itself. But in reality, there is every reason to consider Vermont’s policy goals in the approval process. If we can’t consider our own goals on the signature challenge facing the planet, then what in Hell are we doing?