The Mountain Times

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The quest for 90% renewable energy is like a three-legged race

In December 2011, the Vermont Department of Public Service adopted an ambitious Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP): by 2050, 90 percent of all energy used in-state would be derived from renewable power.

Vermont is in a three-legged race towards a distant finishline. Success would require change in all three legs of energy use: home heating/weatherization, transportation and electric generation. So, where is Vermont today?

Leg #1: Home Heating/Weatherization.
Under the CEP, buildings will be more energy-efficient and heated renewably, mostly by geothermal wells and biomass furnaces and boilers. At present, heating accounts for 30 percent of Vermont's total energy consumption and produces 22 percent of its carbon emissions. The CEP calls for weatherizing 80,000 homes by 2020. Yet, because of insufficient funding, only half of that figure is projected to occur.

The 2013 Legislature rejected "thermal efficiency" infrastructure, climate school curriculum, and new stringent construction standards but created a renewables' loan fund and requires State of Vermont building projects to use renewables, if feasible.

Leg #2: Transportation.
The CEP goal would replace gasoline and diesel-powered cars with plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) and public transportation. Transportation accounts for 36 percent of total state energy consumed and 59 percent of carbon emissions. In 2010, 77 EVs were registered in Vermont, by April 2013, 238. One in 1,756 Vermont-registered cars are EVs.

Some models retail for about $40,000 at local dealerships. Vermont will need more public charger stations. As of May 1, Vermont had 20 public EV chargers, mostly in the Champlain Valley and Washington County. On June 17, Vermont and Québec announced plans for 20 more. To promote mass transit, the State is expanding park and ride facilities and giving state employees bus discounts.

Leg #3: Electric Generation.
Today, about 50 percent of electricity consumed in Vermont is renewable, mostly hydro. Electricity accounts for 35 percent of state energy use and about eight percent of carbon emissions. However, if oil furnaces and gasoline-powered cars are replaced by geothermal pumps and EVs, and other new technologies, electricity demand will triple.

The CEP proposes more wind, biomass, solar, hydro, and methane power - but how? Opposition to essential new transmission corridors in New Hampshire and Maine hinders new imports of Canadian hydro power.

Adding 300 smaller, instate hydro power dams would move Vermont 5 percent closer to 90 percent, but new projects are few due to high cost and lengthy permitting. No new biomass-powered projects have been built. Citizens' groups oppose them and the State is lukewarm. And, the finite supply of trash and cow manure limits substantial growth of landfill and "cowpower."

Wind power, though popular statewide, faces stiffening local opposition around health, aesthetics, and the environment. Getting just 5 percent closer to 90 percent would require five new projects the size of Lowell's Kingdom Community Wind. No new developments are under construction.

Much (about 27 megawatts) of Vermont's solar power is "net metered:" typically; homeowners sell it to utilities to reduce the monthly power bill. Therefore it "counts" as conservation, not generation. Solar generation under the ratepayer-subsidized SPEED program totals 19,000 megawatt-hours, or about one-millionth of the projected total electricity demand of 2050.

Most of Vermont's power production (smallest in New England) is at Vermont Yankee - which the State wants to close. Without Vermont Yankee, and with slow development of renewable generation, it is unclear where Vermont would find enough low-carbon and/or renewable power to meet demand.

Will Vermont complete the three-legged race by 2050? This much is sure: energy planning is no game, and getting to 90 percent is no picnic.

Guy Page is the Communications Director for the Vermont Energy Partnership, a coalition of more than 90 business, labor, and community leaders committed to finding clean, cost-effective, and reliable electricity solutions.