Opinion
May 7, 2015

Vermont and New England must hold onto existing, diverse power sources

Growth of renewable energy is slow

By Guy Page

In an April 13 Associated Press story, a prominent renewable-energy advocate said Vermont’s wind power industry is “just taking a little hibernation here as federal policy gets the tax credits right.”

While Vermont waits for Congress to act, now is a good time to examine the status of the state and regional supply of low-cost, low-carbon, reliable electricity. Vermont’s power needs changed dramatically in March 2012, when Vermont Yankee, per its contract, stopped providing one-third of the state’s power–every kilowatt of it low-carbon and low-cost. But not to worry, Vermonters were assured: new, renewable power would fill the gap.

Three years later, the promise is being fulfilled slowly and with great uncertainty. Based on state, utility and media sources, here’s an update on the contributions of in-state renewable power generation built since March 2012:

Three ridgeline industrial wind turbine developments (in Lowell, Sheffield, and Georgia) contribute about 4 percent of the state’s total electricity load.

A rapid proliferation of photovoltaic solar power generators, from small rooftop projects to big developments, contributes 1-2 percent.

Four farm biodigesters contribute about 0.2 percent, and a small biomass generator and a hydro dam total about 0.1 percent.

By rough count, in-state renewable generation built since March 2012 comprises about six percent of total demand. Currently, only solar is growing. The others have almost stalled since January, 2013 due to opposition, weak incentives, or cheaper energy alternatives.

Yet even the “Solar Express” may slow if Congress lets a 30 percent construction tax credit expire. Through 2016, for example, the builder of a $10,000 solar power generator will pay $3,000 less in federal taxes. Whether Congress continues, eliminates, reduces to 10 percent or phases out this crucial credit is anyone’s guess. Some solar experts believe the declining cost of production has moved solar power almost to the point of tax credit independence.

The wind power industry is indeed treading water, waiting on Congress. The three projects cited above were sufficiently completed by Dec. 31, 2012, just in time to receive an expiring 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour production tax credit (PTC). Congress has since granted the PTC a couple of grudging one-year extensions, hardly the confidence-builder the industry needs. The U.S. Senate voted against a five-year extension this January. Some pro-wind senators now want a five-year PTC “phase-out.”

The owner of Vermont’s only unbuilt but permitted wind project–Deerfield II in Searsburg–must have a power buyer under contract before construction begins, a spokesperson told VTEP in 2013. Ground remains unbroken.

A proposed Northeast Kingdom (NEK) wind farm was rejected in a multi-town referendum. Also, transmission lines in the NEK cannot accommodate another large wind power generator, a senior state energy official said last month. Finally, most of the tri-county region’s senators, newspaper editors, and development officials have publicly opposed more ridgeline wind projects in the NEK.

Three serious proposals to build instate biomass-burning power plants are hanging fire due to lack of support from neighbors, power-buying utilities and/or regulators.

For one reason or another, it’s hard to build new power generation in Vermont. Therefore we must protect the low-cost, low-carbon power generation we already enjoy. With the exception of encouraging the departure of Vermont Yankee, Vermont is pretty good at this.

Long-term Hydro Quebec contracts were renewed, as was a permit for a biomass plant in Ryegate. Small, previously defunct dams are making power again. Active dams have been relicensed. Burlington declared itself “100 percent renewable” last year after buying a large, existing Winooski River dam.

Green Mountain Power has long-term contracts for New Hampshire wind and nuclear power, and owns a small share of a Connecticut nuclear plant.

Throughout New England, hydro and nuclear power plants provide base-load, low-cost, low-carbon electricity. However, their future is jeopardized by policies favoring natural gas, New England’s dominant fuel, including a New England governors’ agreement last week that called for more natural gas infrastructure but was virtually silent on retaining existing nuclear power.

Vermont must urge the rest of New England to keep its low-cost, low-carbon power. Yes, Vermont must seek new reliable, affordable, clean power. But first–let’s keep what we already have.

Guy Page is the communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership (www.vtep.org) a Montpelier-based coalition of individuals, businesses, and labor and development organizations promoting clean, safe, affordable and reliable electricity for Vermont. Vermont Yankee is a VTEP member.

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