SOUTH BURLINGTON — Advocates for renewable energy in Vermont said Thursday they have much to celebrate, but that significant challenges lay ahead.
More than 350 people attended the Renewable Energy Vermont annual conference in South Burlington. Outside, approximately 25 protesters lined the sidewalk in front of the Sheraton Conference center to demonstrate against wind power projects either already buit or planned for their communities.
Darren Springer, Gov. Shumlin’s chief of staff and the former deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, told the audience inside that the amount of renewable energy in Vermont, through solar and wind projects, as well as through conservation efforts, has exceeded projections. (Springer filled in for Shumlin, who was slated to speak, but had to help the family of a friend who died yesterday.)
Despite successes, Springer said challenges remain to convince public policy leaders, particularly in Washington, to extend tax credits to boost the renewable energy sector, in the face of global warming, which he noted some politicians still doubt.
Springer touted the accomplishments of the industry during the Shumlin administration: 16,000 jobs currently in the clean energy sector and 100 megawatts of power from wind projects since 2009 and 10 times the solar capacity in Vermont since the governor was elected in 2010. Vermonters are using 13 percent less power than had been projected since 2000, thanks to efficiency programs, and electric rates in Vermont are the second lowest in New England, he said.
“There’s a lot to celebrate. There’s also a moment of challenge,” Springer said, noting he had attended the “compelling” presentation on global warming at UVM this week by former Vice President Al Gore.
Springer said the success behind the expansion of renewable energy in Vermont is in part attributable to state incentives for renewable projects, as well as net metering programs that allow residents and companies that create more power than they use to sell it back to utilities. He also applauded the work of the utilities with a variety of programs to help customers cut back on use.
However, Springer said federal tax incentives were critical and that their future was “constantly under threat.” He said no energy source would be viable without subsidies. Springer said the federal government was on track to provide subsidies of $100 billion in the next 10 years for nuclear, coal and other fossil fuels. If renewable programs were extended, the subsidies would amount to $35 billion over the next 10 years, he said.
“We are on schedule to put $100 billon into fossil fuels, yet we refuse as a country to extend the tax credits for renewables to help level the playing field,” Springer said. He also noted renewable energy received a smaller share of federal research and development funds than nuclear power and fossil fuels.
He also acknowledged local opposition to renewable energy projects. He said legislation passed this year should make it easier for opponents to be heard, including a provision in the review process that gives towns an automatic right to be a part of the case. That legislation also changed how “renewable energy credits” are sold between utilities and states trying to reach renewable energy goals. Vermont, for example, is seeking to get 90 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050.
“We know there are some folks who are reacting to the idea we’re going to see energy produced in our communities instead of being brought in via powerlines from some large plant out there somewhere, whether it’s coal or a nuclear plant or whatever it might be. And we have to be smart in responding to those concerns,” he said.
Sally Collopy and Penny Dubie, the wife of former Lt Gov Brian Dubie, were among the protesters in front of the conference center holding signs opposing wind turbine construction on ridgelines. In Swanton, there is a proposal for a project with seven 499-foot tall turbines.
“It just makes no sense at all,” said Collopy, holding a sign that said “We are victims of industrial wind.”
Opponents, including Keith Ballek of Sheffield, say the wind turbines cause health problems because of the noise vibrations they create, while other opponents were more focused on aesthetics and keeping Vermont ridgelines pristine. Several said they felt the regulatory process was slanted toward developers and that opponents didn’t have enough say or sway.
“This is a statewide issue and I just feel people need to speak up now because what’s right happening now is a runaway train the way this policy is set up right now,” Ballek said. “It’s a feeding frenzy and the word’s out there’s not much oversight here… it’s like they’re prospecting.”
Springer said the Legislature this year called for more regulations for siting solar panel projects to “try to bridge the gap between those opposing projects and those trying to build them. I think we should give those things a chance to work,” he said and that it was worth the “time and effort” to have communities and developers work together.
“This is not an industry that can fail,” Springer said, “we have to get renewable energy right.”
Rep Tony Klein, the chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said “the state’s come a long way.”
“Along with those successes are challenges and the challenges are sometimes unintended consequences that nobody has even thought about or at the speed that you’re developing that you run into things that maybe shouldn’t happen and you have to address that,” he said. “Right, wrong, indifferent, there are people who are upset with some of the placements of some of the larger solar installations, and I think some of that is legitimate, and we have to find ways to address that and to find the real cause of the problem before you can address that.”
He said wind projects went through a “full blown, not overnight” regulatory process with the Public Service Board.
In an interview, Klein said the Public Service Board had powers “to incorporate some of the problems and wishes in certain areas and towns who want to have their voices heard better” and that they were “not doing that” but instead claiming they were following the guidelines set down by the Legislature. For example, on solar projects, he said the PSB had the power to have a developer move, reduce the size or require screening.
“When I hear the chair of the Public Service Board make statements that they are only doing what the Legislature is telling them to do and if you don’t like what we’re doing go talk to the Legislature, I react negatively to that because that’s just not necessarily so,” Klein said. “And what I’m fearful of is that if people are going to really turn on the Public Service Board and me knowing they already have existing authority to be more nimble, to be more helpful and if they’re not going to to that, then eventually there is going to be a lot pressure put on the Legislature to tell them exactly what to do.”
He said the PSB will not like that and the Legislature may not be capable of setting those parameters. “I worry about that,” Klein said.
Klein, who expressed concerns about the anger of some renewable project opponents, said the PSB needs to use its existing powers to make people feel more included in the process or there could be a backlash that threatens to have “a positive regulatory process that we’ve seen for the past 40-plus years undone willy-nilly because of emotion.”