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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Public Service Dept. Says Monitoring Energy Projects Is Not A Realistic Option Without More Money

Georgia Mountain Wind
Neighbors of the Georgia Mountain Community Wind Project have filed complaints with the Public Service Department

The head of the Vermont Department of Public Service says it would require significant resources for the state to take a more proactive role in tracking down businesses and individuals that violate their state permits when operating renewable energy projects.

And for now, it's just "not feasible." The Legislature asked the Department of Public Service to make recommendations regarding the potential of developing a process to monitor projects before citizens have to file complaints about alleged violations.

Public Service Commissioner June Tierney says it would be major change for the department to actively monitor full compliance of a project's certificate of public good.

"If the vision includes the department actively going out to make sure that every CPG — and every condition of every CPG — is complied with, that's a much bigger mission," Tierney says. "It's a question of feasibility. And with the existing resources, that's not feasible."

In 2016, the department established a protocol within its Consumer Affairs and Public Information division for Vermonters who want to investigate whether a project is in violation of its state permit.

The Consumer Affairs and Public Information division looks into complaints and tries to reach an informal resolution.

When a resolution cannot be reached, and if there is enough evidence to believe a project is in violation, the department issues a citation and the alleged violation could then end up in front of the Public Utility Commission.

All of this takes time, and some Vermonters have had to take time off work, and spend money trying to move a case forward.

Lawmakers asked Tierney to see if there was a way to reduce the filing of individual complaints.

"The Legislature's interest in this grew in the context of several renewable energy CPGs spawning a variety of complaints," Tierney says. "I don't think the creation of the mechanism was targeted at renewable energy as much as it was making sure folks had a straightforward way of dealing with state government in dealing with CPGs.

Vermonters for a Clean Environment Executive Director Annette Smith has worked with a number of people who have filed complaints against large commercial wind and solar projects, and she says the process in place takes too long to reach resolution.

"The program needs to be beefed up so that there is a more timely response," Smith says. "If you [have] got blinding glare for two hours across the street from your house, for months, you can't wait to see if anybody is going to take action."

Smith also says the process requires a lot from the complainant.

They have to attend hearings and maybe miss work.

And if a company is guilty of violating their CPG, Smith says the penalty is paid to the state.

"No benefit ever comes to the neighbors," she says. "And at the end of the day, you're spending money to try and get the CPG enforced. And the developer gets a relatively small fine which then goes into the General Fund and does nothing for the actual issue."

Commissioner Tierney says she's not yet ready to advocate for the state to have a more aggressive role in tracking down state permit violators.

"We have been able to carry the mandate we have had to date, but it still very much relies on folks coming to us to say, 'Hey. We have a particular problem,'" Tierney says. "And if we were expected to ensure that every condition that the PUC ever authorizes or imposes in a CPG is complied with. That's a much bigger undertaking and this agency was not crafted, or staffed, with that in mind."

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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