Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Distributed Generation for Vermont: Making a Virtue of Necessity

Panel, from left to right: William Driscoll of A.I.V at podium,
me,  TJ Poor of Vermont DPS, Douglas Smith of GMP,
John Goodrich of  Weidmann
Photo courtesy of Howard Shaffer

The panel about power

On Friday March 13, I was panel moderator at an ISO-NE (New England grid operator) meeting of the Consumer Liaison Group.  We discussed the past and the future of the grid in Vermont and the Northeast.

I enjoyed the meeting, and I hope I was able to be a good moderator.  Here's my post about the meeting, and here's a direct link to the ISO-NE web page about the meeting. All the presentations were excellent and worth reading. They are posted on the ISO-NE page. In this following post, I share some of my personal opinions, inspired by this event.

Importing Vermont's Electricity

I moderated a panel. One of the panel participants claimed that closing Vermont Yankee had no effect on Vermont utilities. He said that the utilities had no power contracts with Vermont Yankee  after 2012 (this is true). So didn't matter to Vermont utilities that the plant closed in 2014.

After his comment, I decided to make my own comment, as the moderator.  I noted that whether or not local utilities were contracting with Vermont Yankee to buy power, the Energy Information Administration looks at states in terms on what electricity is produced within the state. Vermont Yankee used to make about 70% of the power produced in the state.  When it went off-line permanently, that left the state with only 30% of its previous in-state power supply available. Therefore, shutting Vermont Yankee makes a huge difference to Vermont, if you look at the power produced within the state, not the power contracts.

I basically shared the comments above, as a clarification, during the meeting.  In this blog, I will go a little further.

Power contracts are written by utilities. Utilities can make long and short term contracts with all sorts of power generators, near and far. The types of power under contract can change in a week, a month, or in the very instant that a new piece of paper is signed. However, power produced in the state changes more slowly.  Power produced within the state is far more indicative of the state-of-the -state,  in terms of electricity.  That is why the Energy Information Agency looks at power produced within the state, not at power contracts.

Vermont electricity

With Vermont Yankee closed, the state of Vermont produces less than 1/3 of the electricity that it produced a year ago.  If someone asked me: "Where does Vermont get its electricity from?" I would have a simple answer.  We get our electricity from out of state.  

This answer means that the Vermont Energy Plan for 90% renewables and the newest energy bills that are now debated in the Vermont legislature are a bit…well, maybe… a bit silly?  No. "Silly" is a loaded word.  "Unrealistic" sounds better.  I'll go with "unrealistic."

Thinking about Distributed Generation

6.5 Kilowatt Wind Turbine
Two of the speakers, Douglas Smith of Green Mountain Power and TJ Poor of the Department of Public Service, emphasized Vermont's push into Distributed Generation.  As a matter of fact, the title of Douglas Smith's presentation is Distributed Generation in Vermont.  Vermont plans to build small renewable power facilities (farm methane, wind farms, biomass plants, solar photovoltaic installations) instead of big centralized power.

In his third slide, Smith admits that most of the Green Mountain Power electricity supply is sourced from outside of Vermont.  Much of the rest of his presentation concerns Vermont incentives for renewables and distributed generation: those incentives that are in place now, and those that are proposed.

Our choice by choice---or our choice by necessity?

When you are listening to a well-organized presentation, you can't help but "buy in" to the presenter's view of the situation. When I was listening to Poor and to Smith, I thought that Vermont had chosen distributed generation.

But afterwards, I began to wonder.

Have we chosen distributed generation because distributed generation is such a great thing?  Or is it because it is really Vermont's only choice?  Vermont Yankee is closed, we import around 70-80% of our power from out of state or even out of the country.  Nothing wrong with that. However, if we want to say something to the world besides "We'll buy whatever electricity you are selling," we have to build some power production in-state.

What power production can we build in Vermont? Only a madman would try to site a good-sized thermal plant in Vermont. Gas pipelines are fiercely opposed, and coal would be laughed out of the state. (People wouldn't even protest coal. They would just laugh, I think.) Nobody would ever try to build another nuclear plant. We can build some more hydro, but hydro is pretty tapped-out in the Northeast.  Certainly there are no further sites for big hydro.

So there you have it.  If we build anything in Vermont, it will be small. It will be "distributed generation."

Virtue and Necessity

We can make a virtue (clean! small!) of the necessity to build only small facilities.  We can make comprehensive energy plans and pass new laws about renewables.  We can get good press.  We can pat ourselves on the back. We can claim to be the cleanest and the greenest state in the whole United States.

Well and good.  However, in the meantime---

If someone asked me: "Where does Vermont get its electricity from?" I would have a simple answer.  We get our electricity from out of state.

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