The Quest for Renewable Energy

The Quest for Renewable Energy

The Quest for Renewable Energy

The Vermont Department of Public Service adopted an ambitious Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) in 2011: by 2050, 90 percent of energy used in-state would be derived from renewable power. Success requires changes home heating and weatherization, transportation and electric generation. So, where is Vermont today?

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.

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. 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. The State is expanding park and ride facilities and giving state employees bus discounts.

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 new transmission corridors hinders new imports of Canadian hydro power.

Adding 300 smaller, instate hydro power dams would move Vermont five 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.  The finite supply of trash and cow manure limits  the growth of landfill and ‘cowpower.’

Wind power, though popular statewide, faces stiffening local opposition. 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 (the smallest in New England) is at Vermont Yankee, which the State wants to close. Without Vermont Yankee and the slow development of renewable generation, it is unclear where Vermont would find enough low-carbon and/or renewable power to meet demand.

Energy planning is no game, and getting to 90 percent is no picnic.

By Guy Page,

Communications Director, Vermont Energy Partnership,

a coalition of

more than 90 business, labor, and community leaders.