Act 174 (Act), which was passed on June 9, 2016, authorizes planning commissions to identify suitable and unsuitable areas for renewable energy projects and allows for greater involvement in the Certificate of Public Good (CPG) proceedings under 30 V.S.A. § 248. The Act also directs planning commissions to study all energy sectors, including transportation, heating, and electricity, and to address energy efficiency.
What does the Act require planning commissions to do?
The Act requires just one change for regional planning commissions: they must study and make recommendations about energy conservation and renewable energy resources. However, they may also be called upon by the Public Service Board to help make determinations in Section 248 proceedings. The Act makes no new requirements for municipal planning commissions.
But the Act allows regional and municipal planning commissions to create renewable energy plans, which may include identifying sites as suitable or unsuitable for renewable energy projects. And if those plans meet the Act’s standards for “energy compliance,” then the Act gives those plans significant authority: the Public Service Board must give energy compliant plans “substantial deference” in CPG proceedings.
What would make a plan “energy compliant”?
To be energy compliant, an energy plan must:
- Include an “energy element,” which may include the following: an analysis of energy needs & resources; a policy statement on energy use, development, and siting for renewable resources; and identification of areas that are suitable and unsuitable for siting renewable energy projects;
- Be consistent with Vermont’s greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy, and building efficiency goals and state energy policy and plans;
- Allow for siting for all types of renewable energy projects (regional plans only); and
- Be consistent with the regional plan (municipal plans only).
What is the process for getting a plan approved as “energy compliant”?
The process for getting a plan approved as energy compliant is different for regional and municipal planning commissions—regional plans are approved by the State, and municipal plans are approved by the regional planning commissions.
A regional planning commission must submit its plan to the Commissioner of Public Service with a request for approval. The Commissioner’s review must include a public hearing, and the Commissioner must make a determination within 2 months of the request. The planning commission may appeal the decision to the Natural Resources Board within 30 days.
If a municipality is located in a region with an approved energy compliant plan, the municipal planning commission may submit its plan to its regional planning commission for approval. Until July 1, 2018, a municipality located in a region without an approved energy compliant plan may submit its current plan directly to the Commissioner of Public Service.
Once a plan is approved as energy compliant, the Public Service Board must then treat “the land conservation measures and specific policies” with “substantial deference” with respect to in-state electric generation facilities under Section 248.
How else does the Act expand the powers of planning commissions?
Regional and municipal planning commissions (as well as municipal legislative bodies) may now appear by right as parties in CPG proceedings for projects not only within their own region or municipality but also in adjacent areas where the municipal or regional border is 500 feet from the project’s nearest component or a distance of 10 times the height of the facility’s tallest part.
Planning commissions can also request information about electricity infrastructure, transmission, distribution, etc., for their area from the Department of Public Service.
Additionally, when creating the State Electrical Energy Plan, the Department of Public Service must consult with regional and municipal planning commissions.
Does the Act set any new requirements for the State?
Yes. The Act requires the State Electrical Energy Plan and the State Comprehensive Energy Plan to make recommendations for regional and municipal planners and set specific standards for what constitutes energy compliance. The standards should include identifying the suitability of certain areas for renewable energy projects. The Department of Public Service must publish these recommendations and standards by November 1, 2016, following a public notice and comment period.
The Act also requires the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to be a party in CPG proceedings for projects sited on “primarily agricultural” soils that will generate more than 500 kW. The Agency may also be a party in any other CPG proceedings.
For other changes the Act made, see our recent blog post on new environmental & energy legislation here.
If you have questions about what Act 174 requires or how it may affect you, please contact one of the attorneys in one of our Dunkiel Saunders’ renewable energy & clean technologies or environmental & natural resources practice areas.
Authored by Vic Westgate & Heather Devine