Sunday, June 20, 2010

Guest Blog: Renewables and Vermont

My friend Guy Page of Vermont Energy Partnership wrote this op-ed piece, which I am happy to post as a guest blog. Here in Vermont, we face the constant question: if Vermont Yankee closes down, will windmills, solar installations, cow power spring up to take on the electrical load?

As you may have noticed from my earlier posts about the Coalition for Energy Solutions report Vermont Electric Power in Transition, the answer is No.

Guy Page wrote a report detailing sources of renewable energy in Vermont, and sources planned for the future. His report is fact-based and hopeful. Still, if you ask the question: "Can Renewables Power Vermont?"---the answer is still No.

Renewables Alone Cannot Power Vermont
By: Guy Page

Here in Vermont and across the nation renewable energy sources are a hot topic of discussion. And as Vermont works to hammer out our energy future, renewable energy sources will certainly play a growing, important part.

Today, however, the sources categorized as renewable by the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), including wind, solar, biomass, methane, certain hydro, and geothermal, among others, meet a small fraction of the nation’s energy needs. So what role do renewable energy sources currently play in Vermont, and what is their potential in the next five to ten years?

The Vermont Energy Partnership analyzed these and related questions in a recent report which inventories current and pending renewable power sources, both in-state and in the immediate region, as well as the potential for energy efficiency and conservation.

To ensure that the lights, TV’s, computers and refrigerators stay on at our homes and businesses Vermont requires output of 700 megawatts (MW) at average demand, 1000 MW at peak demand (one megawatt is enough to electricity for approximately 800-1,000 average homes). The report finds that at present, in-state renewable sources generate about 84 MW. Seventy MW comes from two woodchip burning plants, Burlington’s McNeil and a facility in Ryegate. Conservation and in-state hydro power make notable contributions now, but have modest growth potential in the near future.

While many factors could change the amount of renewable power the state has in the future, the report also finds that using reasonable and practical assumptions, new renewable power generation may increase by 95 MW in the near future, provided the state’s new Feed In Tariff program performs superbly and four major, as-yet-unbuilt wind farms come online and generate electricity as expected.

In Vermont terms, 95 MW is a lot of new electricity. Once online, it would represent almost a tenth of our peak load. Yet it is clear that in the foreseeable future in-state renewables and efficiency cannot begin to replace either Hydro-Qu├ębec (which the state recently designated a renewable energy source) or Vermont Yankee, the state’s two largest electricity providers which each provide about a third of Vermont’s electricity, absent an unexpected and unprecedented change at all levels of policy making.

The Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) program sets a cost-based price for renewable power projects of 2.2 MW capacity or less. Once a FIT project is built and approved, Vermont utilities are obligated to buy the power at the approved, above-market rate. Vermont law caps, for now, the combined capacity of all FIT generation at 50 MW. Because capacity always exceeds output, particularly for renewable projects, 25 MW of FIT output is a prudent and perhaps optimistic estimate.
Although biomass generation produces most of the current in-state renewable power, costs less than solar or wind, and supports the state’s logging industry, its growth appears uncertain. The Ryegate contract may not be renewed by utilities after 2012. Several new proposals are in preliminary stages, while other, more mature proposals have hit significant snags.

The Vermont Energy Partnership recognizes that any inventory of Vermont’s electricity generation is a snapshot and a work in progress. The energy industry is dynamic, and with the push to support renewable energy sources at the federal, state and local levels, it is possible that additional capacity will flourish.

But given our established needs and the likelihood of significant additional demand for electricity after the recession, we cannot afford to put all of our eggs in one basket, especially a basket that has yet to prove its ability to meet our needs. Vermont cannot depend on renewables and energy efficiency alone to meet our current, or future, energy needs.

Maintaining our hydro and nuclear power sources provides two important factors in allowing Vermont’s renewable energy capacity to grow: time and money. Time will come from securing long-term power agreements with these power producers, and money will come in part from the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, which benefits greatly from the operation of Vermont Yankee.

The renewable energy industry is dynamic, exciting and will certainly play a role in meeting Vermont’s energy needs. But like any project, we must factor into our energy discussions the limits, costs and long-term potential.

Guy Page is VTEP communications director and author of the above-mentioned report. VTEP ( is a diverse group of more than 90 business, labor and community organizations and leaders committed to finding clean, affordable and reliable electricity solutions to ensure Vermont remains a great place to live and work. The membership includes Vermont Yankee owner Entergy.

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