The energy legislation recently signed into law by the Governor (aka S.260) has been talked about primarily as an effort to deal with the siting of renewable energy generation facilities. It is that, but also much more. The legislation recognizes that to make meaningful progress toward meeting our state energy goals action needs to happen at the local level.
The law creates a process that underscores the importance of Vermonters actively determining the best ways to meet these goals, community by community. Municipalities, working individually and cooperatively at a regional level, will be able to guide energy development by crafting plans that include information and specific strategies that address energy conservation, efficiency, and sustainable utilization of renewable energy resources.
Cooperative planning will lead to significant progress in key areas, including: reducing the amount of energy used to heat and cool buildings while promoting conversions to sustainable locally sourced fuels; supporting compact land use patterns and transportation systems that will reduce our reliance on petroleum-fueled vehicles; and using electricity more efficiently while finding ways to generate more electricity from local renewable resources.
The comprehensive approach to energy planning mandated by the legislation assures that actions are directed toward providing these critical, and tangible, benefits for Vermont and for our local communities:
• The environmental benefits associated with reducing Vermont's contribution to climate change and the many other environmentally destructive impacts of obtaining and burning fossil fuels.
• The economic benefits resulting from the creation of well-paying clean energy jobs while also retaining tens of millions of dollars in our local economies that would otherwise be exported for energy purchases.
• Fostering long-term energy security by ensuring that we have access to a sufficient supply of energy to continue to maintain our economic systems and our quality of life.
The comprehensive planning approach established through S.260 is at the core of these efforts. Three of the state's regional planning commissions have been working on a pilot project over the past year, funded by the Public Service Department, to determine reasonable targets for both energy conservation and renewable energy development. As part of that effort, we have been working to evaluate energy resources and environmental and social constraints to identify where it is, and where it is not, appropriate to develop new renewable energy resources including solar, wind, and hydro electricity generation facilities, as well as places where biomass and geothermal energy can be obtained and used in safe and sustainable applications.
Each of Vermont's eleven regional planning commissions will be developing similar plans while helping local communities produce municipal energy plans that support state goals while reflecting local concerns and values. Municipalities and regions that complete these plans will have more influence – or "substantial deference" – in regulatory proceedings before the Public Service Board.
When this type of comprehensive energy planning is done well, it will allow for greater local input in the siting of renewable energy resources. Implementation will forge the heretofore missing connection between good locally-driven land use planning and energy development. Renewable energy development will be able to be viewed as a positive and collaborative partnership that provides benefits to residents and businesses while avoiding impacts to important resources. Our move from imported nonrenewable fossil fuels to local renewable energy is both essential and inevitable, and this new framework established by S.260 will help ensure a successful transition.
— Jim Sullivan is the Executive Director of the Bennington County Regional Commission.