BENNINGTON — The county's regional energy plan is the first of its type to be certified by the state Department of Public Service.
Prepared by the Bennington County Regional Commission in partnership with state government departments and businesses in the energy field, the document received DPS approval June 21. The plan constitutes a lengthy amendment to the area's regional plan.
In addition to meeting new requirements under the planning legislation, Act 174, the certification qualifies the BCRC to review and approve energy plans from towns in the region, several of which are in progress.
A key aspect Act 174 is that it allows regions and municipalities more influence over siting wind, solar, hydro or other energy facilities during the Public Service Board permitting process, if they have a certified plan in place.
BCRC Executive Director Jim Sullivan said the planning commission is now working with or advising a half-dozen towns, including Bennington, Dorset and Sunderland, as they prepare municipal energy plans. Concerning the siting of energy facilities, a municipal plan could further define the preferred locations for solar, wind or other projects, from the designated locations in the regional plan.
Sullivan stressed, however, that the mapping of favored or unfavorable areas for project development is only one aspect of the energy plan requirements. "The biggest part, the most important part, is really thinking through how to meet the state's [long-term] energy goals," he said.
Those include measuring energy use and proposing efficiency initiatives such as weatherization of buildings or transportation changes in order to meet those goals.
Among towns working on energy plans, Bennington's draft proposal is expected to be reviewed by the town Planning Commission and the public in late July, said Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Daniel Monks.
Concerning facility siting, a controversial solar array proposed for the Apple Hill area of Bennington has spurred calls to limit the preferred development areas beyond those in the regional plan.
Manchester Planning and Zoning Director Janet Hurley, who also is the BCRC chairwoman, said her town expects to begin working with the regional commission later this summer on an energy plan.
Among facility siting issues that have surfaced there in the past, she said, was significant public mobilization against a plan for wind development on Little Equinox. The developer eventually abandoned that plan.
Under Act 174 provisions, greater weight is given to regional or community preferences for facility siting when there is an approved energy plan.
The now-certified BCRC energy plan covers 13 towns and 3 villages in the region. The 161-page plan was adopted by the commission representatives in March after two public hearings on a draft of the proposal. It was later submitted to the Department of Public Service for review and a determination it is compatible with the planning requirements in Act 174.
With adoption, the regional plan allows communities consideration during state Public Service Board hearings on the siting of energy facilities. Developers also can expect a financial incentive on the sale of power produced by those or other generating facilities if they locate in an area designated as preferred.
Adoption of a town energy plan allows for more specific detail and for "substantial deference" on where facilities can be sited. However, as with the regional plan, the provisions must not be in conflict with state facility siting regulations.
The Legislature sought in passing Act 174 to address concern that communities had too little say over the location of energy projects, while also continuing to allow the PSB to overrule blanket type local opposition to local projects that would be of benefit regionwide or statewide.
The regional plan includes graphs, charts and other data relating to current energy use and to what might be required to meet the state's energy use goals for 2050, which include receiving 90 percent of energy used from renewable resources and a one third reduction in overall energy consumption.
It is proposed those would be achieved through weatherization projects, equipment and vehicle upgrades, greater reliance on more efficient transportation alternatives and other strategies.
The report contains maps illustrating what were determined to be the most and least acceptable areas in the county for the location of solar, wind, hydro, and other energy generating facilities. Among the factors considered were access to sufficient light for solar or wind for wind facilities. The solar locations are shown on maps primarily in valley regions, while the wind sites are located along mountain ridges.
The plan was prepared in partnership with the Energy Action Network, the Public Service Department, Vermont Energy Investment Corp., and with support from such entities as Green Mountain Power, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, along with state Agriculture, Commerce and Community Development, Transportation, and Natural Resources officials.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.