The Commission on Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting has published its recommendations for reforms to the siting and permitting processes associated with clean energy infrastructure.

Gov. Maura Healey established the special commission last September to develop recommendations to reduce barriers to the development of clean energy infrastructure — particularly generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure — that will be necessary to meet the goals of the Commonwealth’s Clean Energy and Climate Plan, which calls for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

Massachusetts will need to double electricity from solar photovoltaic generation, install 3,200 megawatts of offshore wind, and install more than 2,500 megawatts of additional energy storage by 2030, according to the commission’s report.

Also needed are the transmission and distribution infrastructure necessary to interconnect these resources and deliver electricity to customers.

The special commission was tasked with developing recommendations to reduce permitting timelines, ensure that communities have input on siting and permitting, and ensure that the benefits of the clean energy transition are shared equitably.

The commission met for about seven months, held two public hearings, and received more than 1,500 public comments. Its recommendations on administrative, regulatory and legislative changes to existing permitting and siting procedures were submitted to the governor on March 29.

Commission’s areas of concern
The commission’s report identifies three main areas of concern:
1. Community engagement and protections for health, safety and community livability: There must be meaningful community engagement at impactful times, as well as clear information about health and safety impacts.
2. Environmental protections: Siting and permitting reforms must consider the future of natural and working lands, climate resiliency, biodiversity, and environmental equity and justice.
3. Process inadequacies: State and local governmental bodies are understaffed and under-resourced to reach climate goals, and current siting and permitting processes have redundancies, as well as differences across communities. Local and municipal interests, regulations, and statutes can be misaligned, and opportunities for appeals can cause project delays.

A central theme of the recommendations is to consolidate approval processes into one central permit approval process.

The commission’s recommendations include:
• Defining clean energy infrastructure
• Reforming the Energy Facilities Siting Board and processes in other jurisdictions
• Reforming local permitting processes
• Prioritizing siting by creating a methodology to identify preferred areas for clean energy infrastructure while avoiding, minimizing and mitigating siting impacts in areas of environmental and land use concern
• Requiring “pre-filing” information and community engagement from project applicants

State laws lack a clear, current definition of clean energy infrastructure, so the special commission has offered language to define anaerobic digestion facilities, clean energy infrastructure, clean generation and storage infrastructure, clean transmission and distribution infrastructure, and solar and wind facilities. The commission also identified key types of facilities and various thresholds associated with who has jurisdiction.

The commission recommended that “larger” energy projects be under the jurisdiction of a reformed Energy Facilities Siting Board, and “smaller” energy projects remain under the jurisdiction of municipalities through a reformed process. Small projects include solar generation of less than 25 megawatts and energy storage of less than 100 megawatt hours.

Proposed new process
The commission recommends that a process be established for the Energy Facilities Siting Board to issue a single consolidated permit for large clean energy infrastructure projects, which would be equivalent to the issuance of the current Certificate of Environmental Impact and Public Interest, as well as all state, regional and local permits required for construction and operation. Affected municipalities would be required to submit statements of recommended permit conditions, with an opportunity for public comment.

The new EFSB would include municipal representation and would require additional staffing to support its work.

The commission recommends that the new EFSB finalize permit decisions within six to 15 months of application.

The process would include a required pre-filing engagement process followed by a completeness determination, public notice, public hearing, procedural conference, procedural order, statements of recommended permit conditions, EFSB adjudication and evidentiary hearings, a tentative decision, comments, final decision, and constructive approval.

For small clean energy infrastructure projects, the commission recommends mandating a consolidated local-level permitting process, which would encompass all local permits required for construction and operation. Additional state, regional or federal permits would not be included, and may be required to be obtained outside of the local process.

New oversight of local process
The report recommends establishing a Division of Energy Siting and Permitting, housed within the Department of Energy Resources, which would oversee the local process initiative. Staff would include at least four regional coordinators to support municipalities.

The DOER would be responsible for setting regulations related to the consolidated local permit process.

The special commission recommends that the DOER generate:
• A uniform set of baseline health, safety and environmental standards related to clean energy infrastructure
• A common standard application
• Minimum pre-filing requirements, including recommendations for hybrid hearings with sufficient public notice
• A determination on how to apply site suitability guidance to be developed by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs to better understand and evaluate resource areas for quality, development potential, and general social and environmental impacts, and a mitigation hierarchy to be applied during the permitting process
• Common standards to be used in approval in the event that a municipality triggers constructive approval through inaction
• Clarification of responsible parties subject to various enforcement actions

The commission further recommends that local decisions on permit applications be rendered within 12 months of receipt of a complete application. If no decision is made by the deadline, the project would be considered approved.

Within 30 days of the local decision, applicants or other parties could request adjudication by the director of the EFSB. Decisions made by the director could be appealed to a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. The EFSB would be responsible for setting regulations for the adjudication process.

Other points
The commission did not reach a consensus on several topics directly and indirectly related to the siting and permitting process, such as the role of Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act processes in a reformed permitting process.

Other recommendations address appeals reforms, a public information campaign, model zoning bylaws, technical assistance, incentives for solar canopies, Department of Public Utilities review of interconnection delays, and more.

Acton Town Manager John Mangiaratti represented the MMA on the special commission.

The MMA advocated for:
• An optional local consolidated permitting process guided by incentives for participating municipalities
• Creation of guidance on health and safety implications of clean energy infrastructure, to support municipal officials in protecting the health of the community while demystifying topics of concern to residents

Many of the special commission’s recommendations require legislative approval, and the MMA will be working with the administration and the Legislature as next steps are considered over the next few months.

Written by Adrienne Núñez, MMA Legislative Analyst, and Josie Ahlberg, MMA Legislative Analyst