A look at how alternative energy systems are permitted by the state

 By Lisa Loomis

When the Vermont Public Service Board permits the installation of alternative energy systems, the review process is relatively simple.

Applicants fill out a form explaining the location, size and specifics of their proposed system. Anyone proposing a photovoltaic project on pedestals - such as the solar trackers that have recently been installed at Yestermorrow and the Kingsbury Farm - must notify all abutters and the town in which they are located.

Abutters and towns have 30 days to file comments or respond and when/if no comments are received, the Public Service Board issues first a brief two- to three-page finding that defines the particulars of the project and then a Certificate of Public Good. After the Certificate of Public Good is issued, there is a 30-day appeal period.

LOCAL REGULATIONS

There is no requirement that either the applicant or the Public Service Board post or publish any legal warning or notice about the project. In terms of compliance with local Town Plans and zoning ordinances, applicants must declare that their projects meet local regulations.

And, while local zoning regulations in both Warren and Waitsfield prohibit development in the middle of open fields, a state regulation requires all towns to exempt power generation and transmission facilities from local zoning ordinances. Such power generation and transmission facilities must, however, conform to the policies and objectives spelled out for energy in the local Town Plan.

Joshua Schwartz is the director of the Mad River Valley Planning District (MRVPD), a tri-town planning body that works individually and collectively with Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston and Sugarbush on development, planning, growth and energy issues.

ENERGY PLANS

Schwartz explained that currently the only way for towns to have input into the Public Service Board is through the Town Plan. Towns have to create their own energy plans and adopt them as part of the Town Plan in order for the Public Service Board to consider local wishes when siting alternative energy projects.

Waitsfield and Warren are currently in the process of rewriting their Town Plans. The Waitsfield Planning Commission will discuss the issue of alternative energy, including the identification of the Northfield Ridge as a location for a wind farm, at its May 18 meeting.

At that meeting, the commission will hear from a group called Citizens Energy that has identified the Northfield Ridge as possible location for a wind farm. Waitsfield's Town Plan currently prohibits commercial generation of wind power above 1,700 feet in elevation on the Northfield Ridge.

WIND FARM SITES/NORTHFIELD RIDGE

Steve Shea, chair of the Waitsfield Planning Commission, said that he was contacted by Randy Male of Citizens Energy and was told that the company is investigating potential wind farm sites in New England and that the Northfield Ridge was one of them.

"The planning commission is discussing energy issues as part of our Town Plan update at our meeting of May 18 and Randy has been invited to attend," Shea explained.

Shea said that Citizens Energy is a nonprofit organization with a wind development division.

Randy Male, senior wind developer for the East Coast and Canada for Citizens Energy said that he was coming to talk to the planning commission about wind power generally and his company's preliminary thoughts about a project on the Northfield Ridge.

CARBON NEGATIVE

"We think ridge could host a wind project and that’s what we’d like to consider further. The initial work we have done in investigating the ridge line suggests that if we were working iwth the ridge line in Waitsfield and Northfield that the ridge could support something in the neighborhood of 20 turbines ranging in size from 1.5 to 3 megawatts," Male explained.

The smaller turbines could generate as much as 30 megawatts of energy and the larger as much as 60 megawatts. Male explained that a wind farm generating 60 megawatts of energy would supply more than the current electric load of The Valley and would make The Valley carbon negative, not carbon neutral. 

The attraction of the Northfield Ridge, he said is that it appears to have good wind, based on publically avaialable wind data and the resource (land) is constructable and there is a way to transmit the wind energy into the grid.

"The ridge iteself is straight once you are on the top. You could drive along the top fo the ridge, we could put a road up there," he said.


PROACTIVE PLANNING

Shea and Schwartz both pointed out that the meeting on May 18 will be informational, versus a public hearing on a specific application.

"This is a good first step for Waitsfield to learn what this type of a project entails. To create energy plans that address such issues as siting and impact, people in The Valley need to understand the impacts. What does proactive planning for alternative energy look like? It begins with understanding the impacts and what projects look like, then having thoughtful discussion about location and implications and what we hold dear in The Valley - wildlife, scenic attributes, sustainable economic development, etc. We have to figure out where our comfort level is," Schwartz explained.

"Citizens Energy is not the only participant in that discussion. The May meeting is set up for the planning commission to look at the energy section of the Town Plan and consider it in terms of different types of alternative energy," he added.

The website for Citizens Energy is www.citizensenergy.com. Citizens Wind, which Male represents, is a for profit subsidiary of the non-profit Citizens Energy which was founded by Joe Kennedy in the late 1970's.

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