McClaughry: Pearl Harbor time in the Green Mountains

By John McClaughry

A current case before the Public Utility Commission (PUC) may illustrate how that regulatory board has become an unaccountable fourth branch of government, dedicated to accelerating the current preoccupation with defeating the Menace of Climate Change.

John McClaughry

The case in point is a developer’s application to install a 500kw solar farm on Richville Road in Manchester. As an energy generation project, it falls under the jurisdiction of the PUC. What follows is the necessarily oversimplified account involving the “aesthetics” criterion that the project must meet to comply with what’s called the Quechee Test.

(The following analysis leans heavily on the excellent 2021 Midyear Report by Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which is assisting neighbors objecting to the Richville Road Solar Project. I take no position on the overall merits of that Project.)

The legislature, in 1970, enacted Act 250. But it also provided for a carveout from Act 250 review for projects under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Board (renamed the PUC in 2017). The PSB borrowed from Act 250’s Criterion 8 (“no undue adverse effect on aesthetics”). 

This became known as the Quechee Test. The first part inquires whether the project has an adverse effect on aesthetics and natural or scenic beauty. The second part inquires whether any such effect is “undue”. Sometime before 2002 the PSB, on its own, thought up a new and quite expansive third part to the Quechee Test: whether the project delivered “overall societal benefits” that could outweigh undue adverse effects on aesthetics.  Whoa! Where did the PUC find that authority?

In a wind case titled In re Halnon in 2002, the Supreme Court set forth the proper Quechee Test – the first two parts, but not the PSB’s assumed third “Societal Benefits” part. Only eight days after the Court’s Halnon decision, the PSB professed the exact opposite. It claimed the power to overcome any undue adverse aesthetic impact with a single bold sentence declaring that its rulings on aesthetics would be “significantly informed by the overall societal benefits of the project.”

When asked by the (Douglas) Department of Public Service in 2003 to remove its “societal benefits” addition, the PSB stubbornly refused.

In 2014 the legislature directed the PSB to follow the Supreme Court’s statement of the two-part Quechee Test for net-metering projects larger than 150kw. The PSB’s rewrite of its rules incorporated verbatim the Halnon court’s statement of the (two-part) Quechee Test. But the (now) PUC has never retreated from its position that it can approve an application for a renewable energy project by relying upon its invented “societal benefits” criterion to overcome opponents’ “undue adverse effects” aesthetic objections that would otherwise defeat the application under the Supreme Court’s definitive statement of the two-part Quechee aesthetic test.

Last January the PUC, chaired by longtime climate change warrior Anthony Roisman, opined in a legislatively-mandated report that a “robust” carbon tax on heating oil, kerosene and propane is sorely needed “to benefit the users of these fuels.”  That urging followed his announcement two years earlier that Vermont was facing a “Pearl Harbor moment” requiring a “wartime effort” to cope with the growing Menace of Climate Change.

Roisman’s PUC seems likely to use the PUC-created and (arguably) extralegal “societal benefits” criterion to approve Big Wind and Big Solar projects that would otherwise flunk the Supreme Court’s aesthetics test. That would defeat the representations of citizen groups opposed to (arguably) environmentally defective projects, spurn the clear mandate of the Supreme Court, and greenlight the renewable-industrial complex that is waxing fat on subsidized wind and solar.

Only skilled lawyers can penetrate the workings of the PUC. The utilities and the renewable energy developers have hired those skilled lawyers to persuade a receptive PUC to make use of its undefined “societal benefits” criterion – such as “defeating climate change” – to approve their applications.

That’s why the Richville Road Solar developer, in a brief to the PUC, threw in this revealing Roisman-appealing though false argument: “Under Rule 5.112 the Commission conducts an aesthetic review as articulated in Halnon, which includes policy considerations such as societal benefits. The Project, as with other solar net metered projects, will result in societal benefits by utilizing a renewable energy resource that will assist in the reduction of greenhouse gases which in turn will address climate change impacts.”

The PUC’s decision in the Richville Road application is pending. Will the PUC override the recommendation of its hearing officer by invoking  “societal benefits” to rush through ever more renewable energy projects, that Roisman believes are so desperately needed to save the Earth from a “Pearl Harbor” climate catastrophe?

“Societal Benefits” – the PUC’s magical incantation! Who, again, ever voted for that?

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (

Categories: Commentary

2 replies »

  1. In the same way that Burlington Voters are realizing the obstacles their city council has placed
    on the residents of Burlington, so slowly are Vermont voters beginning to realize what decades of one-party”rule” have done to Vermont and her residents. The PUC is but first in a line of authoritarian commissions and boards that past legislatures have allowed to usurp the democratic process.
    The Green Mountain Care Board, Vermont Climate Council and others, like the PUC can go about fulfilling the interests and desires of their members- as well as special interest groups, all in the name of whatever the current fad or fantasy Vermont’s elite choose to pursue.
    We have allowed this to happen- and wrestling power and control away from these boards isn’t likely to happen for decades more. Not until Voters realize the mandates these boards issue really don’t help the voters and residents- just enable government to assume more control over voter’s lives and pocketbooks.
    Between the PUC and the VCC, all energy imported, produced and consumed in Vermont will be tightly regulated as to method, quantity and cost. Rationing by taxation is already happening with electricity- very facet of energy will fall under purview of these boards- If the Vermont Climate Council deems gasoline rationing is needed to meet archaic carbon “goals”, you’d better be prepared to pay up- and you may pay for gasoline based on your income! The “Just Transitions” sub-committee will see to that. Same goes for every kilo-watt of electricity and every btu of oil or gas to heat your home. You, the voter gave the VCC and the PUC this power, all in the worship of the religion of climate change. I hope you are satisfied with the results of your votes.

  2. the hue and cry over this hot dry summer has many claiming, that climate change is upon us! Funny I remember summers exactly like this as a girl growing up! yes, weather changes, it always has, it always will. Do we really believe we can change the weather through raising people taxes to heat their homes when it’s -40 in a severe new England winter. And there’s not enough electricity to heat homes and power cars. And if it snows everyday for weeks and the sun does not shine those with solar homes are going to be unhappy campers. Meanwhile china is building coal plants worldwide, check it out! Are we really so stupid that we’ll go along with this lunacy?

Leave a Reply