Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Kevin B. Jones, Ph.D., 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 and not necessarily reflective of the views of others at IEE or VLS.
While Vermont is a leader in the energy efficiency arena, with new leadership in Montpelier it is time to overhaul an inadequate state clean energy regime. First and foremost on the list should be the adoption of a real renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that is regional in scope.
Vermont’s current renewable goals and incentives are, at best flawed, and potentially place Vermont at a long-term disadvantage. Vermont’s clean energy goals and long-term competitive position are best served by having a transparent long-term renewable requirement which allows Vermont’s utilities and regional renewable developers to plan for the future.
Furthermore, it is essential that if renewables are procured for Vermont consumers, whether through incentives or goals, the renewable energy credits from these resources must be preserved for the benefit of Vermont consumers. Current rules requiring Vermonters to fund renewable resources without claiming for them the renewable energy credits creates long-term risk for Vermont consumers when a federal renewable portfolio standard is adopted and suggests that our state renewable goals are an illusion. In addition to an RPS, we should formalize the incentives available to residences and businesses to install distributed renewable resources, which after energy conservation, are our wisest clean energy investments. New York’s programs offer a worthy model for both funding and design.
Vermont’s clean energy competitive advantages include our small scale and perhaps our proximity to vast Canadian energy resources, but not extensive internal wind resources like the Dakotas or Texas. Driven by geographic limitations that limit our in-state wind resource to higher elevations, the uproar caused by wind development on Vermont ridgelines should not be ignored. Historically, former Governor George Aiken demonstrated Vermont sensibility in rejecting the false promise of progress through paving over the Green Mountains when the federal Green Mountain Parkway was proposed.
Similarly, it is unfair to dismiss those vigorously objecting to large scale wind development on our ridgelines as NIMBY’s. Generations of Vermonters have lived, worked and played among our ridgelines and it is essential that state policymakers include as part of our clean energy program adequate siting protections for our ridgelines and those that live among them while providing clarity to renewable energy developers.
Vermont’s scale is so small and our energy challenges are so manageable that we need not despoil what we love. Similarly, Vermont’s renewable energy goals and incentive programs should be closely linked with responsible land use planning. For example, we should follow the lead of places such as California where distributed solar resources have been directed toward developed spaces such as parking lots and existing structures rather than less integrated approaches which have sometimes led to the clearing of acres of forests or the misappropriation of precious agricultural land.
Finally, it is time to move beyond the unnecessarily distracting debate over Vermont Yankee (VY). The Vermont Senate has decided that VY’s license should not be extended beyond 2012. What may not be so clear is that Vermont’s utilities have been planning for this eventuality by reducing their reliance on VY power. With the robust supply of natural gas, which will continue to be the marginal resource for the New England electric market for years to come, five years after the retirement of VY most people will wonder what all the fuss was about.
Once we move beyond the VY debate, there are plenty of energy infrastructure improvements that are worthy of consideration for securing a clean energy future. With abundant natural gas, extension of the distribution network for clean natural gas into central and southern Vermont will likely have significant economic and environmental benefits.
Regional transmission planners continue to explore projects such as grid enhancements between New York’s North Country and Northwestern Vermont that could both unlock bottled New York renewable resources and improve reliability. Additionally, continued investments in a smart electric grid offer opportunities for customers to make more efficient energy choices and to transition toward the electrification of vehicles and away from imported oil. Vermont is well positioned to secure a competitive and clean energy future with renewed leadership.