MONTPELIER -- Foes of mountaintop wind power in Vermont were dealt a setback Tuesday when a bill calling for more study of large-scale renewable energy development was significantly reduced in scope.
Though the bill won preliminary approval in the Senate, it was only after provision calling for a slowdown of such development was scaled back, then removed completely.
People on both sides of the debate said the legislation pitted one environmental good against another: protecting Vermont’s pristine landscapes from rapid development, especially of wind power sites but also solar and wood-fired electrical generators, versus promoting those power sources in the hopes of reducing reliance on fossil fuels and stemming climate change.
Critics have charged that renewable energy projects have been approved too easily without giving people who live near project sites enough say in the review process.
"Push has come to shove. Are you serious about global warming or are you not?" asked Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor. He called climate change too crucial an issue to slow renewable energy development, though he said he lamented the mountainside roads, concrete pads and wind turbine towers extending more than 400 feet above Vermont’s ridge lines.
"I’m going to vote against the bill, and I’m going to break my own heart doing it," McCormack said.
In the end, McCormack was part of the 24-6 majority that supported the measure, but only after an amendment offered by Sen.
The sections deleted by the Zuckerman amendment would have called for the state utility regulator to give more weight to local and regional land-use plans and less to its traditional standard of determining whether a project was "in the general good of the state." The change in review standards was to last only until July 1, 2014, leading some to question how effective it would be, given the dearth of applications for big wind projects.
"It’s still an anti-renewable dog, but now it’s had all its teeth removed," one of the bill’s toughest critics, Vermont Public Interest Research Group Executive Director Paul Burns said after the vote.
Backers of the original bill said they were disappointed its toughest provisions had been stripped out, but encouraged by sections calling for more coordinated study of Vermont’s energy siting process.
"There’s a certain amount of frustration and disappointment," said Matt Levin of the group Vermonters For a Clean Environment. "But it’s good that the bill will allow the conversation to continue."