Gov. Peter Shumlin has named a new commission to consider ways to improve how energy projects are sited and approved in Vermont.
The governor’s executive order follows increasingly contentious debate over large-scale wind projects.
But the governor emphasized that wind development was not the only focus.
"Let me be clear it’s not about wind; it’s about all renewables," he said. "As you know, I feel very strongly that Vermont needs to be on the cutting edge of building out renewables as quickly as we can."
Shumlin wants the five person commission to compare Vermont’s energy development approval process to those in other states. He says he’s concerned that the reviews now conducted by the Public Service Board review can be too slow.
"I would like to see it be quicker. And ensure that we have the confidence of local communities that they are also being heard," he said.
The panel will examine how to improve public participation as energy projects go through environmental and economic review. It will also examine whether the process adequately protects the state’s environmental and cultural resources.
Steve Wright of Craftsbury is a former Fish and Wildlife commissioner and a strong critic of ridgeline wind projects. He says the current Public Service Board review – under section 248 of state law – is overly legalistic and affords little opportunity for neighbors to raise concerns about noise, health or impacts on property values.
"The 248 process is a lawyer’s process," Wright said. "It is not designed for helpful public participation and we need to re-frame that."
Mainstream environmental groups had pushed for the gubernatorial commission, saying that debates over wind energy had divided Vermont communities.
Their original request asked that the governor’s commission look solely at the wind issue. They also wanted a map or inventory that would clearly define where the projects could be built.
Brian Shupe of the Vermont Natural Resources Council said he was pleased that the governor created the commission, even though it’s not charged with developing the map of wind sites.
"There’s different ways to skin the cat," he said. "You can have a map or you can have guidelines that identify certain resources that should be off limits. Ultimately, as long as you tie it to an evaluation of the different cultural and natural resources and the opportunities for wind generation, you can come up with guidelines that are the equivalent of having a map."
The panel includes two former natural resources secretaries, a former speaker of the House, a former utility regulator, and a retired regional planner.
The governor wants a report back from the commission by the end of April. In the meantime, the existing system stays in place. The legislature would have to act on any changes recommended by the commission.