Saturday December 17, 2011

The Wind Energy Siting Reform Act is virtually dead in committee and unlikely to reach the floor of the state Legislature during the current session, according to state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Telecom, Utilities and Energy.

The bill, which has riled anti-wind energy activists, is an attempt to streamline local and state permitting for wind projects, streamline the legal challenges to wind projects, and give local towns more control over wind projects proposed within their borders.

Rick Sullivan, secretary of the executive office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, has been encouraging passage of the wind siting reform bill. Friday he said wind energy siting reform is an important aspect of encouraging renewable energy, and looks forward legislative efforts to further advance clean energy growth.

Opponents of wind energy praised Downing for dropping the wind siting reform bill.

"From the time we first became aware of the bill in 2009, we were up against the Statehouse leaders, the media, and the ‘green' groups," said Eleanor Tillinghast, a member of Green Berkshires and an outspoken opponent of wind energy, in an email to supporters. "It was quite a fight. From the Cape to the Berkshires, we all pitched in to protest this unprecedented and dangerous piece of legislation. And to their great credit, our legislative leaders listened and reversed course on the bill."

"I think Sen. Downing made a real courageous move to back off a bill that he originated," said Channing Gibson, a member of the Lenox Wind Energy Research Panel, during Thursday night's panel meeting at Lenox Town Hall. "I think his stepping back and looking at the facts and realities of the situation, and forming a conclusion of his own, is to be commended. It's the right decision."

Gibson is an opponent of the proposed Lenox Mountain municipal wind-turbine installation.

Opponents seized on the concept of local control of wind projects by claiming the bill takes it away rather than enhancing it.

But Downing said that debate brought into focus the idea that development standards for wind energy projects should be the first step in reforming the wind energy siting process, a concept that a number of select boards and regional planning commissions had encouraged.

"Select boards and regional planning commissions made a compelling case that standards needed to be established first, before dealing with permitting issues," Downing said.

"We've been recommending setting standards for seven or eight years now," said Nathanial Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, "so I'm very pleased we've been heard. And once you have development standards -- probably the most important step -- coming up with the right [permitting] process becomes relatively easy."

Downing will soon begin the process of assembling a study group to begin work on establishing statewide siting standards for the construction of wind energy farms, he said.

Once that process is finished, Downing noted, the idea of streamlining the permitting process could be taken up again.

After 15 hours of testimony in two public hearings and reams of written testimony, Downing said, "one thing just about everybody agreed on was the need for siting standards, which are essential to towns dealing with wind turbine proposals."

Downing will recommend that the proposed WESRA be relegated to the study order, essential ending the bill's progress. He is also recommending that the joint committee "craft a bill that deals with siting standards."

Downing's goal is to have such a bill reach the legislature before the end of the current session, although the process of evaluating and establishing the standards will be complex.

The WESRA was first proposed by the Patrick administration at the start of the last legislative session. The bill passed both houses but died after the session when opponents used legislative rules to delay its passage.

"We understand that legislative leaders want to take a closer look at the wind siting bill," Secretary Sullivan said. "We plan to continue our discussions with them, including on the significant issue of siting standards and municipal oversight. Wind siting reform is an important tool in our clean energy portfolio."

"We are encouraged, however, by Chairman Downing's comments regarding constituent support for investments in energy efficiency and solar power," Sullivan continued. "This is further validation of the clean energy agenda that has resulted from the Legislature's passage of the Green Communities Act and other nation-leading policies put in place by the Patrick-Murray Administration's nation-leading clean energy agenda."

Eagle reporter Clarence Fanto contributed to this report.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6241.