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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Walters: Green Mountain Power Promises Ratepayer Savings From Trump Tax Cut

Posted By on Wed, Jan 10, 2018 at 5:36 PM

  • File: Caleb Kenna
  • Mary Powell
In a letter sent Wednesday to state regulators, Green Mountain Power promised to pass on the proceeds of the Trump tax cut law to its customers.

The law, which took effect this month, cuts corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent. As a subsidiary of a shareholder-owned corporation, Green Mountain Power will get the benefit of that tax cut.

Utility president and CEO Mary Powell wrote to Department of Public Service Commissioner June Tierney that company staff are still determining how much GMP will save.

"We plan to share that calculation with you and the Public Utility Commission and then return 100 percent of the tax benefit to customers," Powell wrote. "We will also include the new tax rate in future proposed rates. "

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Walters: One Small Step on Volkswagen Settlement Funds

Posted By on Wed, Nov 29, 2017 at 7:53 PM

Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke and Gov. Phil Scott - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke and Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott held a press conference Wednesday afternoon that his office promised would "detail" his plan for spending the state's share of funds from Volkswagen's legal settlement for cheating emission tests. The event itself was short on detail and provided only the bare bones of an actual plan, leaving many crucial issues wide open.

Vermont is expected to receive $18.7 million over the next three years from the national fund. The money is supposed to help reduce nitrous oxide emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. Within that broad mission, it can be spent in a number of ways.

On Wednesday, the administration announced three broad principles for spending the money, and a general outline of which transportation sectors would be eligible to apply for VW settlement funding. The full proposal is available on the Agency of Natural Resources website.

Some background: The $18.7 million cannot be spent on personal or private vehicles — it's devoted to industrial and commercial vehicles such as trucks, buses, construction equipment, ferries, tugboats, and service vehicles used at airports and rail yards. The money can be spent on replacing diesel vehicles with electric ones, or replacing older diesel vehicles with modern, cleaner diesel engines. And up to 15 percent of the fund can be spent on electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Developers Withdraw Swanton Wind Project Proposal

Posted By on Mon, Nov 27, 2017 at 9:46 PM

Swanton Wind proposed a seven-turbine project for a hillside off Vermont 105 in Swanton. - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • File: Terri Hallenbeck
  • Swanton Wind proposed a seven-turbine project for a hillside off Vermont 105 in Swanton.
Developers have withdrawn a controversial proposal to put seven wind turbines on a Swanton ridgeline. Swanton Wind, which is run by the Belisle family, announced Monday that it was “pausing development work” because of anti-wind sentiment among state officials and uncertainty around potential changes to the federal tax code.

In a press release, spokesman Nick Charyk, a former Vermont Democratic Party operative, said that “the project currently faces a hostile environment from an administration opposed to wind energy, regulators and monopoly utilities who import a majority of Vermont’s power while opposing many independent local power projects.”

Although Swanton Wind's application has been withdrawn from the Vermont Public Utility Commission, Charyk said the project will resume at “a more predictable time.”

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Walters: State Legislative Panel Approves Wind Rules

Posted By on Thu, Oct 26, 2017 at 7:09 PM

Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange)
After yet another lengthy meeting full of intensive questioning, a panel of state lawmakers appeared to run out of steam and, in a couple of quick voice votes, on Thursday approved a set of sound rules for wind turbines crafted by the Vermont Public Utility Commission.

The eight-member Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules gave its final approval on a voice vote with only two dissenters: committee chair Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) and Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P/D-Middletown Springs).

Two members who were openly skeptical of the rules and asked numerous questions of PUC officials — Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) and Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte) — either voted to approve the rules or abstained. No roll call was taken. Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), a vocal supporter of large-scale wind energy, left the meeting before the votes were taken.

The final rules retained the key PUC standard, which imposes a sound limit of 42 decibels during daytime hours and 39 dB at night. The PUC did remove a setback requirement for siting wind turbines, which would have mandated a buffer between a turbine and any occupied structure of at least 10 times the height of the turbine.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Walters: Legislative Panel Delays Wind Rules — Again

Posted By on Thu, Oct 12, 2017 at 7:27 PM

Public Utility Commission staff attorney John Cotter, PUC member Margaret Cheney and utilities analyst Tom Knauer testify before the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Public Utility Commission staff attorney John Cotter, PUC member Margaret Cheney and utilities analyst Tom Knauer testify before the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.
After kicking the can down the road at its previous meeting on June 22, the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules has put off action for two more weeks on new rules that set noise limits for wind turbines.

The rules were crafted by the Public Utility Commission (formerly the Public Service Board), and have been criticized by advocates on both sides of the wind issue. Opponents of large-scale wind say the rules are too permissive, while renewable energy advocates say they would comprise an effective moratorium on large turbines.

The rules must be approved by LCAR, which is often a formality. In this case, it’s anything but. The panel met Thursday, the first time since June when all eight members could be present. But they were clearly undecided on a number of questions. After a nearly four-hour hearing, LCAR and representatives of the PUC agreed to a two-week delay to allow the commission to provide more information.

It was clear from the questioning that there’s a solid majority of LCAR that is inclined to reject the rules. Only its two Republican members — Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Rep. Linda Myers (R-Essex) — appear to favor them.

Opponents of ridgeline wind provided a striking visual display at the hearing, as they faced the committee wearing their trademark lime-green vests. It was an impressive sight, but there were only 22 of them in the room. And they didn’t change anybody’s mind.

LCAR members expressed three primary areas of skepticism. First was the noise limit of 42 decibels in daytime and 39 at night.

“Other states have significantly higher decibel limits: 45, 50, 60,” noted LCAR chair Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange). “We’d be the most restrictive of any state in the country. I’d be alarmed if the commission proposed the most permissive numbers; I’m equally concerned that they come in as the lowest.”

“Our charge wasn’t to consider other jurisdictions,” responded PUC policy analyst Kevin Fink. “It was to gather information and expertise and make our own determinations.”

 The second issue has to do with planning a new project. A turbine proposal must, on paper, meet state noise limits before it can be permitted. But some LCAR members pointed out that the PUC’s rules wouldn’t allow the developer to incorporate modern noise-reduction technology in a turbine’s design. That would make it harder for a project to pass muster.

Finally, the PUC had proposed noise limits and a setback requirement — that the distance between a turbine and any occupied structure be at least 10 times the height of the turbine. Large-scale turbines are 500 feet high, so they would have to be sited almost a mile from any building.

Representatives of the PUC told the committee, just as they had in June, that they were willing to scuttle the setback rule. This mollified LCAR skeptics, but didn’t convince them. They seem determined to wring concessions on the other two points before approving the rules, and left the door open for further questions and objections at the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for October 26.

Benning argued for limited action by LCAR. “The courts give great deference to the body proposing a rule,” he noted. “We are not a committee of expertise. There has been a wealth of evidence presented to the commission.”

He argued that LCAR was overstepping its bounds by trying to make policy instead of considering rules on procedural grounds. And he added with a touch of exasperation, “This horse has been beaten to death by this commission and this committee.”

“Our business is beating dead horses,” MacDonald replied forcefully. “That’s what we do. We do not set policy here."

LCAR member Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) argued that it was the PUC that was overstepping its bounds, by setting rules that would ban large-scale wind. She said that policy question is for the legislature to decide.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” said PUC member Margaret Cheney. “The perception is that this rule would effectively ban wind. If we thought that the rule was an effective moratorium, we wouldn’t have offered it.”

Her words were carefully chosen. Lyons didn't claim that the rule would prohibit all wind — just large-scale turbines.

The PUC has two weeks to change minds on LCAR. Lyons was “dubious” that it can do so. “It looks like the rules are extremely conservative and extreme,” she said. But she expressed a hint of optimism due to the commission’s willingness to drop the setback requirement and provide more information on other points.

If LCAR formally objects to an administrative rule, the agency can still adopt it. But the objection would be powerful evidence against the rule in any subsequent court action. Given the clear dissatisfaction expressed by advocates on both sides of ridgeline wind, a lawsuit appears likely from one side, the other or both.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Vermont Climate Panel Has Three Months to Land Three Ideas

Posted By on Wed, Aug 16, 2017 at 9:20 AM

Bill Laberge, Michele Boomhower and Liz Gamache, members of the Vermont Climate Action Commission - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Bill Laberge, Michele Boomhower and Liz Gamache, members of the Vermont Climate Action Commission
A new state panel has just three months to come up with three recommendations for how Vermont can respond to climate change.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, told the 21-member Vermont Climate Action Commission at its inaugural meeting Tuesday. “By December, we’re voting on three recommendations.”

The work is imperative and the timeline is tight, Walke's cochair told the group. After making its initial recommendations, the group needs to come up with a long-term plan by next July.

“I think we’re at a transformative moment in history,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Rural Development Council. “Solving climate change is the most fundamental challenge of our time.”

Gov. Phil Scott created the commission in July. Before the first meeting, the commission had veered into controversy.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

State Rejects Initial Application for Irasburg and Lowell Wind Project

Posted By on Mon, Jul 24, 2017 at 6:58 PM

A sign in Irasburg in December 2015 - FILE: IRASBURG RIDGELINE ALLIANCE
  • File: irasburg ridgeline alliance
  • A sign in Irasburg in December 2015
State regulators have dealt a blow to a proposed wind energy project on Kidder Hill in Irasburg and Lowell.

The Public Utility Commission issued a four-page ruling on Monday saying the application for the project, which was filed in June after years of debate, is incomplete and missing crucial information. The project calls for two turbines capable of powering 2,000 homes.

But the commission said central information, including specific locations of the turbines and an access road, an assessment of natural resources in the area, and whether blasting will occur, is missing.

The commission said it considers the application to have never been filed, forcing the project's backer, AllEarth Renewables CEO David Blittersdorf, to begin the process again.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

State Regulators to Investigate Vermont Gas Pipeline Depths

Posted By on Fri, Jul 14, 2017 at 12:58 PM

Construction of the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline in St. George - TERRI HALLENBECK/FILE
  • Terri Hallenbeck/file
  • Construction of the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline in St. George
State regulators called Friday for an investigation into whether Vermont Gas Systems violated its 2013 permit to build the Addison Natural Gas Project pipeline by burying it at less than four feet in 18 New Haven locations.

"The [Public Utility Commission] has rightfully concluded that the history thus far raises questions about the depth of burial of the entire pipeline," said Jim Dumont, a Bristol lawyer who sought the investigation on behalf of several pipeline neighbors.

Construction of the 41-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury, which was completed in April, has been controversial from the start. Dumont's challenge was the latest complaint by opponents, who allege that the company deliberately disregarded promised protocols for construction.

On Thursday, Dumont filed a supplementary allegation accusing Vermont Gas of more widespread violations of its commitment to bury the pipeline seven feet beneath streams and four feet below ground in residential areas.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Walters: Panel Ices Wind Rules Until October

Posted By on Thu, Jun 22, 2017 at 5:50 PM

Public Service Board utilities analyst Tom Knauer (left), PSB member Margaret Cheney and PSB staff attorney John Cotter testify before LCAR on Thursday. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Public Service Board utilities analyst Tom Knauer (left), PSB member Margaret Cheney and PSB staff attorney John Cotter testify before LCAR on Thursday.
A committee of the Vermont legislature has postponed action on proposed noise rules for wind turbines until late October.

The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules heard three hours of testimony Thursday morning. As the noon hour approached, members discussed postponing a vote until its next meeting on July 6. But two members — Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Rep. Linda Myers (R-Essex Junction) —will be taking long vacations this summer, and they requested postponement until the full committee can meet again. That's not until October 12.

This was the second delay in the process. LCAR heard testimony at its previous meeting on June 8, but decided another hearing was needed to give the matter its due.

The current rules are temporary and were set to expire on July 1; they will now remain in effect until at least October 26 unless the committee reaches a decision before then.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Walters: Panel Postpones Action on Wind Rules

Posted By on Thu, Jun 8, 2017 at 4:32 PM

Public Service Board officials testify before LCAR. Clockwise from front: Staff attorney John Cotter, Board members Sarah Hofmann and Margaret Cheney, utilities analyst Tom Knauer, and policy analyst Kevin Fink. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Public Service Board officials testify before LCAR. Clockwise from front: Staff attorney John Cotter, Board members Sarah Hofmann and Margaret Cheney, utilities analyst Tom Knauer, and policy analyst Kevin Fink.
A joint legislative committee took no action Thursday on a set of rules governing new large-scale wind projects.

The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules heard testimony but postponed a vote until its next meeting, on June 22. The panel's chair, Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), said a crowded agenda and multiple witnesses left no time for full deliberation and a vote.

"In the hour and a a half we had, we tried to do more listening than questioning. Next time we’ll do more questioning," he said after the hearing.

The rules were created by the Vermont Public Service Board. They would impose tougher limits on turbine noise (42 decibels during the day and 39 at night), and create a setback requirement equal to 10 times the height of a turbine. For modern turbines, that would mean nearly a mile of uninhabited land in all directions.

The rules can be approved or rejected by LCAR, but any rejection cannot be on policy grounds alone — it must be based on flaws in the rulemaking process or failure by the PSB to fulfill legislative intent. Board members Margaret Cheney and Sarah Hofmann* defended their work as balancing various interests and meeting the legislature's requirements.

Annette Smith, of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, testified in favor of the rules as being "somewhat more protective" than the present standards, but spent most of her time criticizing the rules as not being strong enough.

One issue that captured LCAR's attention was a provision in the setback rule that allowed a developer to proceed if they convinced all nearby residents to sign on to the project.

"If you have 400 neighbors and only one objects, can the project go forward?" asked Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden).

PSB staff attorney John Cotter acknowledged that that would indeed be the case. But, he added, "The rule does provide for waivers, or the developer may be able to reconfigure the project somehow."

Olivia Campbell Andersen of the pro-wind group Renewable Energy Vermont said that the waiver process was too uncertain, and would discourage developers from even considering Vermont.

"A developer would need to spend $750,000 to $2 million to assess the viability of a project" even before seeking waivers, she said. "You’re asking businesses to take a crapshoot as to whether it would be approved."

Members of LCAR were offering few hints on the decision.

"I can't project" how the committee will decide, said Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (D-Middletown Springs).

MacDonald was allowing himself room to go either way.

"Are these rules being written on noise, or are they being written for people who don’t like wind and find wind invasive, intrusive, ugly or annoying?" he explained. But then he added, "When rules are clear and carry out legislative intent, we must approve them."

His final word: "We haven't got there yet."

*Correction, June 12, 2017: A previous version of this story misidentified Sarah Hofmann.

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