The national picture on renewable deployment has never looked better but the picture in Vermont is starkly different. While solar deployments are rising rapidly across the country, annual solar installations have shrunk by more than 50% since their peak in 2016. And the story for wind is even bleaker with no significant wind capacity added in Vermont over the same time frame. What is to blame for the regression in Vermont’s renewable deployment? A regulatory regime that is increasingly unpredictable and often erects barriers to renewable development that don’t apply to other forms of development is a big part of the reason.
Regulatory Road Blocks to 100% Renewable Energy at REV2023 tackled the regulatory quagmire that is slowing renewable deployment in Vermont with a panel featuring REV Deputy Director Jonathan Dowds (REV), Joslyn Wilscheck (Wilschek Iarrapino), VHB’s Tim Upton (VHB) and moderated by Danielle Laberge (Grassroots Solar). Framing the problem, Dowds highlighted the recurrent issues that REV documented in REV’s June report No Good Reason: lack of timeliness in the review process, the inconsistent application of existing rules, and highly subjective evaluation criteria. In addition, he spoke to the differential treatment of renewables and other forms of development that frequently disadvantage renewables in areas like decommissioning requirements, Act 174, and Section 248 vs Act 250 permitting requirements. See Jonathan’s slides.
Wilschek tackled the issues of a broken aesthetics evaluation process and how the weaker intervention standards in Section 248 relative to Act 250 that empower NIMBYISM in renewable cases. On aesthetics, Wilschek cut to the core of why she thought the Quechee Test was an inherently poor fit for evaluating renewable projects stating:
Part of the current aesthetic test asks would a project be out of character with its surroundings. This is a ridiculous question when we are trying to transform our energy system from one based on fossil fuels to renewable energy. Under the fossil fuel based system, Vermont for decades did not need to look at how its energy was developed – yet the people of West Virginia did. Taking responsibility for our energy consumption should look different than our current surroundings; it should be of a different character.
On the topic of landowner interventions, Wilscheck pointed out that – unlike Act 250 – Section 248 does not set intervention criteria, leaving the PUC free to create the thresholds for landowner intervention-making that are far more lenient than Act 250’s and that do not require a potential intervener to specify a concern that is particular to them, rather than a general policy concern shared with the public at large. Consequently, Section 248 party status decisions are moving from protecting the collective good and advancing public policy goals to focusing on private, individually focused concerns. Read Joslyn’s full remarks.
Upton highlighted an increasingly frequent practice of requiring renewable developers to assess the potential impacts of distribution line construction to facilitate connection of new generation – a requirement that is out of step with what happens for other forms of development and in fact is at cross purposes with the Legislative process that established Section 248.
These requirements are being applied exclusively to a particular type of development: renewable energy. All distribution lines in Vermont are designed to safely, reliably, efficiently, and sustainably meet the needs of customers based on demand and supply parameters that change every day. When conditions change, the grid has to react. Anyone applying for approval under Act 250 or Section 248 has to show that the project won’t have negative impacts on the proper function of the distribution system. But the construction and reconstruction of that system is regulated separately. If you build a house or a factory or a shopping mall, you don’t have to account for related distribution construction, much less attempt to determine where and how construction will be accomplished or what environmental resources exist along the presumed route.
Read Tim’s full comments.
Collectively, the panelists demonstrated that legislative action is urgently needed to bring greater predictability and consistency in the process of permitting our much-needed renewable energy projects.