Forum points to initiatives for Vermont's energy future

  • Sep 17, 2019
  • Bennington Banner

BENNINGTON — Vermont is poised to charge further into a renewable energy future — and into the global fight to stave off climate change.

That was the consensus during a recent forum on the state's energy future, held at Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action.

State Sen. Christopher Bray, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy; Robert Dostis, vice president for governmental affairs at Green Mountain Power, and Darren Springer, general manager of the public utility Burlington Electric each described initiatives that, if realized, would keep Vermont among the leaders nationally on those goals.

Bray said Vermont, which has detailed ambitious state goals for expanding reliance on renewable energy and reducing fossil fuel emissions, has benefited from having "progressive, forward-thinking utilities" that have typically led the way — as well as strong support for such policies in the Legislature.

Currently, Bray said, he and other officials are discussing legislation he plans to introduce in 2020 that will take those efforts to the next level.

Meaning, he and the other speakers said, targeting for reduction the state's heavy reliance on fossil fuels for transportation and heating, which currently threatens to thwart the state's long-term goals.

Speaking about the bill publicly for the first time, Bray said utilities and Efficiency Vermont, which is funded through a fee on electricity bills and offers incentives and other programming aimed at conserving energy, will again be at the center of the pending legislation.

The proposal calls for "looking at the model of Efficiency Vermont" to develop programs that specifically target the use of fossil fuels for transportation and heating buildings.

While current EVT initiatives focus on weatherization, fuel-efficient appliances, efficient light bulbs and similar approaches, Bray said the new component would encourage more reliance on electricity produced from regional, renewable resources for transportation, heating and industrial processes.

The idea, he said, is to "start to redefine efficiency as reducing fossil emissions," and to target those issues "on a level we have never had before," with incentives available in all areas of the state and to Vermonters of all income levels.

Efficiency Vermont provides a unique model for reducing the constant demand for new new sources of power by conserving energy wherever possible statewide, Bray said. The 20-year-old program, which has been copied in other states and countries, has reduced the power the state would otherwise now require without the conservation efforts by about 120 megawatts.

The next step, the officials said, is to strive for a Vermont electricity grid that derives 100 percent of power from renewable resources, and which avoids purchasing nonrenewable-source power during peak demand periods.

Strategies for accomplishing those goals statewide were detailed in report released in 2018 on what would be the next steps in Vermont's long-term energy plan, known as Tier 3 — or moving beyond heavy fossil fuel reliance.

In general, it would require electric utilities to help customers reduce fossil fuel consumption by adopting new, affordable and clean energy electrification technologies, such as cold climate heat pumps, heat pump water heaters and electric vehicles of all types.

And by selling more electricity as a result of those initiatives, according to the report, utilities would be able to better meet fixed costs for employees, infrastructure and equipment, with a potential impact being reduced electricity costs.

Bray said he and others are discussing legislation tentatively called the "beneficial electrification" bill, primarily aimed at cutting use of fossil fuels while also spurring the state's economy through the use of more renewable-source power produced in the region or state.

The term refers to moving to electric power where practicable to reduce greenhouse gases and reliance on gasoline, heating oil and natural or propane gas.

Springer and Dostis, in describing the operations of the Burlington Electric public utility and investor-owned Green Mountain Power, the state's largest utility, were both clearly onboard with those goals.

Springer said Burlington Electric already is planning incentives for electric vehicles, encouraging charging stations and other initiatives.

The utility's comprehensive Net Zero Energy initiative also involves promoting weatherization of buildings in the city to allow a shift in heating energy use away from fossil fuels toward electricity or other renewable methods of heating and cooling, and more efficiently managing power use throughout the system while expanding use of renewable energy generation sources.

Support among customers for the Net Zero Energy initiative is at close to 95 percent, Springer said.

Dostis said Green Mountain Power sees greater use of electric vehicles as a revenue plus for the utility, which because of conservation efforts through Efficiency Vermont and other programs has seen power demand decline.

A related side benefit of greater use of electricity produced in the region and from solar, wind or other renewable sources, Dostis said, is that state as a whole would realize economic gains.

That means, Dostis said, that instead of Vermonters purchasing oil, gasoline or gas products produced out of state and sending, as we do now, about 80 percent of those dollars out as well, much more of our transportation- or heating-related spending could remain in the Vermont and New England economies.

Springer said his utility also wants to change the way many vehicle owners view electric-powered cars or trucks.

That will involve incentives for their purchase, which often are coupled with federal or other rebate offers, he said, but also efforts to make the process of buying one less confusing and easier.

Auto dealers, he said, typically don't push hard to increase sales or even maintain enough electric vehicles in stock or ready for a test drive.

In part, Springer said, that's because electric vehicles require less maintenance work, a major source of dealership income. As a result, he said, a number of states have set up websites that provide information directly to consumers on where electric vehicles can be purchased and related details about features, costs and performance.

Dostis described how the electricity grid has changed over a decade with the addition of renewable sources of power, and how other factors, like the increasingly strong storms GMP crews must deal with are forcing the pace of change.

He described a November 2018 storm with heavy wet snow that knocked out power to a Vermont record 115,000 customers. Major damaging storms once came about every 10 years, he said, but now are almost an annual occurrence.

GMP has 1,000 miles of transmission line, he said, 11,000 miles of power distribution poles and wires, along with 185 substations, where voltage in the system is controlled.

"When Mother Nature gets mad at us, what she goes after are our poles and wires," he said, "and increasingly those poles and wires are coming down."

On-going initiatives, Dostis said, include projects to move power lines out of wooded areas to roadsides for easier access; hardening of the wire systems, including using underground wiring where practicable, and "smart control" systems to help circumvent a problem area where power is out to preserve the rest of the grid while repairs are made.

While climate change and stronger storms are an escalating threat, he said, the changes in the grid system over a decade are trending in a positive direction.

About a dozen power plants produced Vermont's power then, he said, including Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Rowe, which has since closed, and the power generally went from the plant to where it was used in a linear fashion that was not always efficient.

Today, Dostis said, there are some 15,000 to 20,000 electricity producers pumping power into the state's grid, including both commercial and residential solar arrays, plus wind and hydro facilities, meaning more power is produced near where it is used.

In addition, battery storage systems at homes and businesses, along with solar net metering systems that put power into the grid, can allow the utility to avoid purchasing fossil fuel-generated power during peak periods.

For GMP, peak demand requires about 700 megawatts of power, he said, while the average demand is about 475 megawatts. The utility, with 263,000 customers in 202 communities, now has an energy portfolio that is 60 percent from renewable sources.

However, the trend toward solar production is pronounced and reflected in the growth from about 20 megawatts several years ago to about 275 megawatts today with another 177 megawatts proposed in the state.

Springer said Burlington Electric, with 21,000 customers, is able to get all of its electricity from renewable sources, including solar, hydro and through the McNeil Generating Station using biofuel (wood chips) in Williston, which it operates and owns along with GMP and another partner.

The utility also has its own program that operates like Efficiency Vermont and has used conservation initiatives to save some $70 million for customers and in its own costs, resulting in an overall power use level 6.1 percent below that of 1989, while nationally, use is up about 29 percent over that time.

Promoting electric vehicles of all types will be a focus of the utility, he said, along with geothermal and heat pump systems; bicycling, pedestrian accessways and mass transit.

The forum on Sept. 12, was moderated by state Sen. Brian Campion, of Bennington, who teaches at CAPA and also serves with Bray on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

At the conclusion, Bray rejected the "notion that this is something too hard to do," referring to reducing or eliminating fossil-fuel dependency and the effects of climate change. What the solutions come down to aren't something complex, he said, but a resolve to take action and hard work.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien

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