What Direction Is The Wind Blowing?

Posted on August 16, 2013 by Gregory H. Smith

Ever since the shock of the oil embargo in 1973 we have been a nation in search of a comprehensive, sound energy policy. It was only a year later, in response to the proposal by Aristotle Onassis to locate an oil refinery on the coast of New Hampshire, that the New Hampshire Legislature adopted the first version of the State’s energy facility siting law.

Today, New Hampshire’s siting law, representing a balance of the need to develop new energy facilities with appropriate protection of the environment, preempts local authority and requires each project to undergo a rigorous comprehensive, consolidated evaluation before a  panel of high-ranking State officials from the several different departments having jurisdiction over all the relevant permits. To obtain all State permits and a Certificate from the siting committee, the applicant must be prepared to present the project in a consolidated process, subject to formal discovery, at an adjudicative hearing before the committee. Interested parties and municipalities may intervene and the Attorney General appoints Public Counsel for the case to represent the broad public interest. To take positions in the broad public interest, Public Counsel is charged with the responsibility to represent the interests of the public as a whole, and not simply the narrower positions adopted by intervening parties. To discharge this responsibility, which derives directly from that of the Attorney General in all other cases, the Public Counsel must take positions that balance the public interest in developing new, diversified energy facilities and the need to take into account environmental regulation.

This highly structured, energy facility permitting process is significant regionally and nationally because its standards tend to drive the design of interstate facilities. Current energy policy and its direction may be discerned from trends reflected in the written decisions of the siting committee over time.  Other states may be developing approaches to these issues.

Beginning in the late 1990s, a steady stream of energy projects have been presented to the committee. Until the mid-2000s, the majority of those projects involved fossil fuel generation, and in particular natural gas generating stations and transmission lines. As public policy, driven by concerns for global warming, has put increasing emphasis on renewable energy sources, there has been a significant increase in proposals to construct wind energy facilities. What is most striking from this perspective is that no energy project was rejected until 2013, although some facilities were subject to hundreds of conditions in their certificate.

This year, a proposed 30 megawatt wind farm in Antrim was rejected on its “aesthetics”, an indisputably highly subjective standard in search of criteria that will avoid arbitrary and capricious adjudications. Three previous wind power projects have all been approved with essentially the same characteristics, but for the first time the committee, at the urging of public counsel, has declined to approve the project rather than setting forth criteria and conditions that would bring essential predictability to this important technological advance in energy production.

The region and the nation will be well served by a steady expansion in the number of renewable energy projects, and this opportunity has the attention of large, even international, experienced and capable developers. Does the rejection of the Antrim project, despite public support, on the basis of the objections of special interests actively supported by public counsel risk a slowing down or abandonment by developers to the detriment of the region’s public interest in a diversified energy portfolio? Is it coincidence that a wind energy project was rejected recently in Maine, also on highly subjective grounds of aesthetics, a case that was referenced in the New Hampshire proceedings? And shouldn’t we ask whether advancing wind turbine technology is something we find in most places attractive, when it represents a great benefit to the environment and the public interest?

These cases bear watching. The New Hampshire case appears to be headed to the State Supreme Court. Will it turn out that these developments represent a turning away from favorable conditions promoting wind energy, so that wind energy development will decline in the years ahead? For environmentally sound economic development in this region and elsewhere we should hope not.