What exactly is this Site Evaluation Committee?
The blandly named Site Evaluation Committee has been in the news a lot lately, especially regarding its decision to deny the Antrim Wind project. Despite its bland name, it decides the location of some of the biggest uses of our landscape: power plants and transmission lines. Given the recent focus on siting wind facilities in the Monadnock region and the Northern Pass transmission project, here is your primer as you will inevitably continue to hear more about the committee.
A company who wants to move electricity from one location to another through power lines, or who wants to build a power plant — whether renewable energy or not — must submit its proposal to the Site Evaluation Committee for approval. Generally, only projects that will generate 30 or more megawatts of electricity must obtain approval from the committee. For smaller projects, the Site Evaluation Committee has some discretion as to whether it or the town or city will evaluate the project.
The membership of the Site Evaluation Committee, the people who make the decisions, is a who’s who of senior-level government employees from a variety of state agencies. The chair of the Committee is Thomas Burack, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services. The vice chair is Amy Ignatius, chair of the Public Utilities Commission. The other members represent the many interests that must be considered when evaluating whether a particular location is appropriate for an energy facility, including state parks and recreation, water and air quality, wildlife and forests, public health and archaeological resources. Those individuals come from the corresponding state agencies, including the Departments of Resources and Economic Development, Environmental Services, Cultural Resources, Health and Human Services, Transportation and more.
The process begins when, for example, a company proposing to build a wind farm files an application. Citizens and other parties may intervene, which means to become formally involved in the proceeding as a party. The New Hampshire Attorney General appoints an assistant attorney general to represent the public. This attorney is known as the counsel for the public. Motions, objections, testimony and other documents are filed, which may number as many as hundreds, some of which can be extremely technical and lengthy. You can access all of these documents at the committee’s website at www.nhsec.nh.gov.
Ultimately, the committee holds a public hearing that in recent times has lasted several long days. The Antrim Wind hearing lasted 11 days. The current statute requires that the applicant satisfy several criteria, including that the proposed project will not have an “unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety.” The committee must also give “due consideration” to the views of the local town or city.
Aside from denying the Antrim Wind Energy request, the committee recently addressed another proposed wind farm in the Monadnock Region. Timbertop Wind has proposed to build a five-turbine wind farm on ridges in New Ipswich and Temple that would produce approximately 15 megawatts. Although it is not required to do so, as noted above the committee has the discretion to take jurisdiction over such smaller projects. Unlike a lot of New Hampshire towns, both New Ipswich and Temple recently amended their zoning ordinances to comprehensively cover the development of large wind projects. Preferring to be subjected to the committee’s statutory standard than to New Ipswich’s and Temple’s zoning ordinances, Timbertop filed a petition with the committee, requesting that the committee take jurisdiction over its project. The committee declined, though the final written order has not been released yet. As a result, if Timbertop intends to go forward with its project, it will likely be subject to the zoning ordinances of New Ipswich and Temple.
A couple final notes. An applicant may appeal the committee’s decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and recent legislation may result in changes to the committee’s processes. Stay tuned.
Jason Reimers is an attorney for BCM Environmental & Land Law. This article is not legal advice.