North Country
6:00 am
Tue December 3, 2013

Evaluating The Site Evaluation Committee

Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR
Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley: This week the public has a chance to weigh in on the future of the state’s Site Evaluation Committee.  The SEC reviews major utility projects, including proposed wind farms and the Northern Pass project. 

The concerns of opponents of those projects prompted Governor Hassan to sign Senate Bill 99.  It calls for a review of how the SEC works with a report due at the end of December. 

This week’s listening sessions and workshops include one tonight in Manchester.

Joining me now to talk more about the of the SEC is NHPR’s North Country reporter Chris Jensen.

The Site Evaluation Committee in its current form has been around since about 1991.  Who’s on it?

It has fifteen voting members, who are from eight state agencies including the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Services.

It also includes all three commissioners from the Public Utilities Commission.  The chair right now is Tom Burack, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services.

There are no citizen members.

What prompted this look at how the SEC operates?

Well, Jeanie Forrester, a Republican State Senator from Meredith, says several years ago, when Northern Pass came up, some people began wondering how the Site Evaluation Committee would handle it.

For Northern Pass to move ahead, it needs SEC approval.

At that time, Forrester said, one of the issues was that the SEC had never turned down an energy project.

Incidentally, that changed earlier this year when the Antrim wind project was rejected.

Forrester said there were also concerns about whether the SEC had enough experts to help it understand all the ramifications of an application such as Northern Pass.

That prompted her to introduce Senate Bill 99, which became law earlier this year.

It required the state’s Office of Energy and Planning to hire a consultant to study the SEC, how it compares with other states and to get a report back to the legislature by the end of this month.

Senate Bill 99 required the state to hire a consulting firm to look at the SEC.  What has it found so far?

The firm, Raab Associates of Boston - which is being paid almost $150,000 -  says the 15-member commission is “too large and cumbersome.”

This is a big concern of energy developers who say it takes too long and it’s expensive to take a project before the SEC.

Another issue is that there is no state money set aside for a dedicated staff to check the claims in the utility company’s application and consider wide-ranging issues.

Forrester notes if there was only one project coming before the SEC every couple of years maybe that wouldn’t be a big problem.

The idea is that various departments could pick up the slack.

But now it looks like the SEC may be looking at Northern Pass and a couple of wind projects, perhaps simultaneously.

Now the SEC does have the authority to make an applicant – a utility company or developer - pay for outside consultants to do research.

And Douglas Patch, a lawyer who was on the SEC for almost a decade, says that is a routine practice.

In the recent Antrim wind case, Patch says, three outside experts were hired.

But some critics think the SEC is still outgunned and needs more help to thoroughly handle increasingly complex and increasingly contentious cases that can have a huge impact on the state.

Are there other issues beyond staffing and resources?

There certainly are.

Ken Kimball, the director of research at The Appalachian Mountain Club, says a lack of specific standards for evaluating the impact and merits of projects is the biggest issue.

For example  one of the current guidelines simply says the project “ will not have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety."

Kimball and others worry that is far too vague and open to interpretation by an SEC with a membership that constantly changes.

Douglas Patch, the former SEC member, agrees the standards are pretty broad and should be improved.

He says some SEC decisions did set precedents, helping to define what those guidelines meant.

But then in later decisions the SEC didn’t always follow those precedents.

He says makes it difficult for everyone because neither the developer nor opponents know what the standards really are.

So, the fact that the SEC decided the wind turbines in Antrim were found to have an "adverse" visual impact doesn’t really mean anything for future projects. 

That lack of specifics could make it easier for a utility turned down by the SEC to go to court and maybe win.

Or it could make it harder for a utility to get a fair deal because they don’t know how the project is to be judged.

And critics point to states like Maine that do a much better job spelling things out.

Is there any consideration of increasing public input?

Absolutely.

Currently residents or jurisdictions that can persuade the SEC that they have a special interest can be given intervener status.

And public hearings are required.

Anyone can submit written testimony which the SEC is required to consider.

But critics say there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

In 2011 New York did a couple of interesting things.

It has five permanent members of its site evaluation committee.

But now the state appoints two ad hoc members from the area in which the utility project is proposed and they have voting rights.

Another is that towns or organizations can apply to the state for money to help with legal expenses or to hire experts as part of their lobbying for – or against – the project.

That money comes from the utility company and recognizes the under-dog issue of little towns facing off against big corporations.

For example recently Cape Vincent, which has about 2,700 people and is on the St. Lawrence River, got $83,000 for its fight against a wind farm.

And, Sen. Jeanie Forrester says that kind of citizen funding is something she finds particularly interesting.

Are there any other major issues being considered.

Well, one thing that bothers some Northern Pass opponents is the amount of time the SEC has to consider a project.

Bob Baker is a lawyer from Columbia and he says big utility companies can take years to pull together very complicated and detailed applications supporting their case.

Hundreds of pages.

But for renewable energy projects the SEC is supposed to work through everything and make a decision within nine months.

Baker and some others just doesn’t see how – in the case of Northern Pass – there can be a thoughtful and thorough analysis in nine months.

The project stretches through the state.

Public hearings must be held in each county affected.

And there are going to be dozens of towns and hundreds of people and groups commenting.

Under the law their thoughts must be considered.

The current regulations do have a provision that allows the SEC to go beyond the nine months and the SEC has done that.

But then the current regulations also warn the SEC that the legislature feels “undue delay in the construction of needed facilities be avoided.”

How might these changes affect Northern Pass or new wind projects?

Well, that all depends on how quickly any changes are adopted by the legislature and or the SEC.

If applications are filed with the SEC before such changes that project would be considered under the old process.

So, what is happening this week?

Around the state there are going to be listening sessions and interactive workshops. 

The first workshop is tonight in Manchester.

The first listening session - basically an open microphone comment period - was Monday night in Colebrook.

All are open to the public but pre-registration is required for the workshops.

The final report to the legislature is due the end of this month.

For information about the meetings go here.

For an initial study by Raab Associates go here.

To see how some other states operate, go here.

For a study done by The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College go here.

For information on Maine's standards go here or here.

Or here.