Jones: The shell game in Vermont’s energy policy

Editor’s note: Kevin B. Jones is the smart-grid project leader for the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. These comments are solely those of the author. He lives in Chittenden.

Recently Sen. Bernie Sanders dove headfirst into the controversy surrounding ridgeline wind development in Vermont by vehemently opposing the three-year ridgeline wind moratorium proposed by state Sens. Joe Benning and Bob Hartwell. While some have attacked Sen. Sanders for taking sides on a controversial state policy issue as a U.S. senator, that criticism seems unfair since Bernie is a Vermont citizen like the rest of us and has the right to weigh in on issues being debated in the Statehouse. The development of ridgeline wind has divided Vermont environmentalists like no issue before and while Sen. Sanders must have known his position would create controversy it is certainly an issue on which people can disagree.

Unfortunately both Sen. Sanders and climate activist Bill McKibben have greatly exaggerated the national policy and global environmental harm that a three-year Vermont ridgeline wind moratorium could have. Additionally, in attacking the moratorium they have unwittingly embraced a decade of failed Vermont renewable energy policy. Both Sanders’ and McKibben’s attacks on the moratorium, if accepted at face value, would leave Vermonters with the impression that if the Legislature rejects the moratorium all will be well in regards to Vermont renewable energy policy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, Vermont’s SPEED (Sustainably Priced Energy Development) program, which all of the instate wind resources participate in, is the most fundamentally flawed renewable energy policy in the nation today. As a result of this policy, Vermont’s utilities are largely selling the renewable energy credits from these projects into out-of-state programs rather than retiring them for Vermont customers.

Moratorium opponents, including Sanders and McKibben, have offered two largely hollow arguments. First they have argued that the moratorium will send the wrong signal regarding Vermont’s commitment to renewable energy. Additionally, they argue that it will be a step backward on climate change action which we cannot afford. Unfortunately they are overlooking the effect of current state policy. First, Vermont’s SPEED (Sustainably Priced Energy Development) program, which all of the instate wind resources participate in, is the most fundamentally flawed renewable energy policy in the nation today. As a result of this policy, Vermont’s utilities are largely selling the renewable energy credits from these projects into out-of-state programs rather than retiring them for Vermont customers. While this program raises Vermonters electric rates it does not result in a net increase in renewable energy in the region.

How can a moratorium that would slow rate increases but not change the regional procurement of renewable energy send a worse message nationally than the fundamentally flawed policy in place today? Second, because Vermont’s utilities are largely selling the renewable energy credits from the Vermont wind projects into out-of-state programs, Vermont’s utilities are actually exporting the low carbon energy and in its place importing energy that is largely sourced from fossil fuels and nuclear power. Any credible analysis, including that from the Vermont Department of Public Service, demonstrates that the more Vermont increases the SPEED resources, the greater Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. Contrary to Sen. Sanders and Bill McKibben’s claims, a moratorium on the primary SPEED resources should actually slow the growth of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions given the shell game that is being played with the renewable energy credits and it would also temporarily halt development on our sensitive mountain ecosystems.

Sens. Benning and Hartwell’s proposed ridgeline wind moratorium may not be the optimal fix for Vermont renewable energy policy but compared to the flawed Vermont policy in place today, it at least sends an appropriate message that Vermonters should not sacrifice their mountains for sham renewable policies that offer no benefit to the climate. Maybe then our Democratic legislative majority will actually implement a Renewable Portfolio Standard based on the successful state policies of all of our Northeastern neighbors and that would be state policy worthy of the support of Sen. Sanders and Bill McKibben.

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28 Comments on "Jones: The shell game in Vermont’s energy policy"

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Craig Kneeland
3 years 6 months ago

Based upon my understanding of the laws of physics, locally generated power is used locally. Perhaps the renewable credits are a sham, but that would be a separate issue. We should be building renewable sources every way we can so that fossil sources can be shut down and used only when the renewable sources are lacking

Legal opinions are important in the renewable discussion but more importantly, the smart grid needs the analysis of engineers who have an understanding of what really needs to be done.

3 years 6 months ago

Craig, the author is not “just” a lawyer — he’s also got the precise qualifications you’re invoking:

http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Documents/IEE/Kevin%20Jones.pdf

Kevin Jones
3 years 6 months ago
Craig – Your understanding of the laws of physics are lacking. Electricity follows the path of least resistance. You can’t direct it to a particular source and that is why the electric power industry has set up rules like Renewable Energy Credits to ensure that those who pay for green power get it. As an energy economist with a PhD from RPI who has taught electric market fundamentals to power systems engineers as well as lawyers I can ensure you the rules matter and out of state entities are paying good money for the SPEED resources and VT utilities are… Read more »
3 years 6 months ago
Craig, You understanding of physics is incomplete. See below. Kevin, As both of us went to RPI and studied Physics 101 (in my case many more physics courses), we know energy travels on the grid as electromagnetic waves at nearly the speed of light, 1800 miles in 0.01 second, and the energy travels not through the copper wires, but in the air adjacent to the copper wires, and that the copper surface electrons vibrate in place. Energy, as electromagnetic waves, continuously fills in many millions of voltage valleys created by various demands. NO ENERGY fed into the grid from thousands… Read more »
Bruce Post
3 years 6 months ago
Kevin, Donald Kreis, in his articulate recent commentary on excellence in Vermont architecture, included an interesting quote from Ada Louise Huxtable: “What concerns me as much as the state of American building is the American state of mind, in which illusion is preferred over reality to the point where the replica is accepted as genuine and the simulacrum replaces the source,” wrote Huxtable. “Surrogate experience and surrogate environments have become the American way of life.” I think, although it obviously was not Huxtable’s and Kreis’ intent, this observation can be modified to apply not just to your concerns about the… Read more »
Tom Pelham
3 years 6 months ago
Hi Bruce….a very insightful, wry but ultimately dismaying comment to Kevin’s good work. As you know, fiscal issues have been my major domain but in helping to research this position paper on Vermont’s energy future it became clear how ludicrous Vermont’s energy plan truly is. We want to encourage people to drive electric cars as carbon from automobiles is one of the two major Vermont sources yet have embarked on a subsidy strategy for renewables that helps push Vermont’s electric rates to the highest in the continental U.S.; and not by small margins, but upwards of 40% higher with the… Read more »
3 years 6 months ago

Tom, I would be keenly interested in this paper you’re referring to — can you shoot me a title or something? I could feed myself from there.

Tom Pelham
3 years 6 months ago

Hi Justin…I hyper-linked it in my comment but I guess they don’t work there. Sorry…so here’s the link. Tom

http://campaignforvermont.org/cms-assets/documents/84627-717069.10-25-12-cfv-energizing-prosperity.pdf

Craig Kneeland
3 years 6 months ago

I am not reassured by reading a resume. I know that our so called smart grid has a long way to go before we can direct where particular energy is sent. As for resistance, or more importantly impedence, there is less impedence between the wind generators on Lowell Mountain and the loads at Jay Peak than between the Lowell generators and loads in Massachussets.

3 years 6 months ago
We’ve heard plenty of speculation about how building and decommissioning certain power generators will or will not have an effect on electric rates, Vermont’s economy, public health, the environment, carbon emissions, and the fossil fuel industry. What few seem very concerned with is how all these IWTs, CFLs, grid-tied PV AC/DC inverters, and smart meters are disrupting the power quality on the grid. As the grid gets noisier and noisier, we will see more appliance failure, electrical fires (especially in older wiring) and health problems related to all the flicker and high-frequency transients. There’s even a likelihood that the Super… Read more »
John Greenberg
3 years 6 months ago
Kevin’s main point – one he’s made many times – appears well-taken. When Vermont utilities sell renewable energy certificates (RECs) out-of-state, the amount of renewable energy which would have been added by projects (e.g. wind turbines) in Vermont is offset by diminishing carbon-reduction efforts elsewhere (at least some of which would have been renewables projects). Buyers of the RECs Vermont sells use them to offset carbon they otherwise would have reduced themselves. So, in the absence of a cogent counter-argument which I have yet to hear, I agree with Kevin that Vermont needs renewable mandates similar to those in other… Read more »
Carl Werth
3 years 6 months ago

Who proposed a three year moratorium on debate?

Kevin Jones
3 years 6 months ago
John – When a Vermont utility signs a power contract with a wind project and then sells the RECs into the MA or CT RPS programs which is largely what is happening that utility is then purchasing for its Vermont customers the residual mix for New England which is about 2/3 fossil fuels and 1/3 nuclear. So from your perspective you should be concerned because this is Vermont supporting the nuclear and fossil fuel industry not additional renewables. So that is why I argue that critics of the wind moratorium such as yourself should stop suggesting that Sen. Benning and… Read more »
Randy Koch
3 years 6 months ago

One person’s “organically developing debate” is another person’s barely functional chaos where you race to build a bunch of wind power to meet a federal deadline and then the resulting energy is largely “curtailed” (ie, it wasn’t needed) and then it turns out there isn’t and may never be sufficient transmission capacity.

Time for a time-out. We need to rationalize. Enough “organically developing debate” already.

Townsend Peters
3 years 6 months ago
Wind projects in Vermont do reduce in greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding kilowatt-hours generated by fossil fuel plants on the regional grid. Mr. Jones’ point that the RECs are sold to other utilities in other states means that the Vermont wind plants reduce _those_ utilities’ GHG emissions. The point is correct. But is not correct for anyone to imply from this fact that the plants are not avoiding _any_ GHG emissions. Since the projects do reduce GHG emissions, Sanders’ point that a wind moratorium represents a step backward on climate change policy is supported regardless of whether the RECs are… Read more »
Steve Comeau
3 years 6 months ago

Excellent points that make a lot of sense. I would add that environmental concerns about destroying ridges lines seem overblown. Vermont has mostly a working landscape, it is not a wilderness. Over time, the wind towers will blend into the landscape like farm silos. The construction damage will be temporary and the surrounding forest will repair. But, the turbines will continue to turn year after year, generating electricity without any burning any carbon-based fuels.

Moshe Braner
3 years 6 months ago
VT has a “working landscape” in the valleys, not the mountains (other than the ski facilities, which I have issues with, but are “sacred cows”). We have decided to protect the mountains with laws that bar development above 2500 feet elevation. I think that rule should apply to wind turbines too. Wind turbines belong in the “working landscape” lower down. Yes, I know, there is less wind there. So the electricity will cost more. It eventually will anyway, since there is only that much room for turbines at higher elevations. Moreover, most of our electricity is now coming from natural… Read more »
3 years 6 months ago
Moshe, 1-3 MW IWTs need about a 2 km buffer zone for health and quality of living reasons. Most Vermonters live in the valleys. Another approach is to place the IWTs in Lake Champlain, but about 30% of the hours of the year there is not enough wind speed (about 7.5 mph), to turn the rotors, meaning low capacity factors and high energy costs. The best place is in the Great Plains and Texas Pan Handle; low installation costs, no disturbed flow due to flat terrain, easily maintained, BIG winds; CFs of 0.35 – 40. Despite all the PR hype… Read more »
3 years 6 months ago

Steve,
In New England, about 30% of the hours of the year there is not enough wind speed to turn the rotors, yet IWTs need “dirty” energy from the grid up to 4% of rated capacity while idle; it is called self-use.

While operating, they likely use their own energy for self-use.

3 years 6 months ago

Steve,

Blending in?

Farm silos are about 60 ft tall, nothing moves, make no noise,

IWTs on ridge lines are 459 ft tall, 373-ft rotors move and distract, make much noise, 2 km buffer zone.

3 years 6 months ago

Townsend,

“Wind projects in Vermont do reduce in greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding kilowatt-hours generated by fossil fuel plants on the regional grid.”

A true statement, but OTHER generators have to inefficiently operate in part-load-ramping mode to maintain perfect balance on the grid, which greatly subtracts from the fuel consumption and CO2 emissions that wind energy was meant to reduce.

Kevin Jones
3 years 6 months ago

Townsend – it means the VT policy results in no net reduction in GHG emissions since the reduction happens as a result of another state’s mandate. So yes Massachusetts RPS results in GHG benefit and VT SPEED and standard offer programs raise VT rates and achieve no additional reduction. A heck of a deal for Vermont dollars isn’t it?

Stan Shapiro
3 years 6 months ago
A moratorium on wind projects is warranted because there is no basis to factually ascertain that they will make any substantial difference in minimizing global warming.I believe that the impact in our state of pulverizing our ridge lines only benefits the developers. The PTC is so skewed economically against those towns and effected individuals.We really need an open and transparent analysis as to what is going on with the money involved in these projects. The public is really at a great disadvatage and the state is not working for the public good.IWT are not green in our state except for… Read more »
3 years 6 months ago
Adding to the my above comment: A Massachusetts entity buying the RECs from VEC is likely required to do so because MA has an RPS mandate. The price of the REC is slightly above NE grid prices, because of its “green” halo; with enough coupons the entity has not only the energy it needs, but also the “green” aura of RPS compliance. Vermont’s utilities want to sell their RECs to MA entities, because it reduces their RE costs; VT-DPS and VT-PSB approve. If Vermont had an RPS, that cost reduction door would be closed, and the full cost of RE… Read more »
Moshe Braner
3 years 6 months ago
Craig: where the physical energy goes is irrelevant. It all gets mixed up (somewhat) on the grid. That’s what a grid is for. What matters for the climate is the total emission of greenhouse gasses (as absolute amounts, not percentage of an every-rising total). The question here is: does VT policy cause a reduction in those total emissions. Kevin has done a good job explaining why it does not. Willem: shifting away from fossil fuels carries a cost, although it’s cheaper than trying to survive in a radically altered climate. Trying to arrange things so that VT ratepayers don’t have… Read more »
John Greenberg
3 years 6 months ago
There have been various responses to my comments, but no actual answers to my questions. So first, I’ll put them in simpler form, in hopes they won’t be missed again: 1) How does a moratorium on wind projects do anything at all to prevent Vermont utilities from selling RECs? 2) Since SPEED can be changed in a matter of a few days (or less), why ask for a 3-year moratorium? 3) If SPEED IS changed, then why isn’t a 3-year moratorium deleterious to climate change? 4) Even assuming SPEED is NOT changed, how does a 3-year moratorium help prevent climate… Read more »
Moshe Braner
3 years 6 months ago
Somehow, whatever the issue is, the standard answer from the VT legislature is to put off actions for a few years, and conduct endless studies. That’s sometimes a good idea, but at other times seems like a political cop-out. E.g., when for many years in a row a large majority of Vermonters say (in polls) that they want something (e.g., widening the “bottle bill”), and the legislature still says “we need more studies on how this could work”. So, a “moratorium” (so we’ll have time to “study” the issues) would fit right into this pattern. EXCEPT, that when it comes… Read more »
pete blose
3 years 6 months ago

Perhaps this is part of what’s going on here in Vermont:

“Exelon chief: Wind-power subsidies could threaten nuclear plants

February 08, 2013|By Julie Wernau, Chicago Tribune reporter

Exelon Corp. Chief Executive Christopher Crane said Thursday that the rapid pace of subsidized wind-generated electric power could ultimately force it to shutter nuclear plants.”

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