Jones: Vermont’s renewable goals are flawed

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.

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  • David Cardill

    If energy and the environment are your fields of study, then perhaps you can answer a simple two part question about the environment for me.

    What is natural gas made of, as in, what are the chemical constituents, and, what are the byproducts when it is burned?

  • David,
    Natural gas is MUCH cleaner than coal; less CO2 per kWh, no particulates per kWh. Gas-fired, 60% efficient CCGT plants emit about 0.67 lb of CO2/kWh, coal about 2.15 lb

    Dr. Jones,
    A realistic scenario is as follows:

    The NRC will extend the VY license, the Public Service Board, a creation of the legislature, will not grant a Certificate of Public Good, VY continues operating while the case goes to court, even the Supreme Court, where VT will not prevail, because its LEGAL case is very tenuous, as some members of the VLS have stated.

    Below are some websites of articles. The last three are of particular interest.

  • Jonathan Miller

    Natural gas is made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms (CxHx) and does indeed burn cleanly with H2O and CO2 combustion byproducts. That is not the issues.

    Natural gas has been derived from hydraulic fracturing or “frac’ing” or “fracking”, a natural gas drilling method that has been used throughout the US for the last 50 years, and also has an exemption from the Clean Water Act.
    Millions of gallons of water and multiple toxic chemicals are injected at high pressure
    into the gas well to fracture the surrounding earth releasing the gas up the well hole
    and into waiting tanker trucks.
    The excess pumped water and chemical mix making its way to the surface is typically
    full of heavy metals, carcinogenic benzene, and over 200 other toxic chemicals, which is typically directed into a manmade retaining pond. This water should be but is typically not treated before being discharged into the local watershed.
    The mix that remains in the ground pollutes the groundwater and nearby water wells.
    The State of Pennsylvania is currently being aggressively fracked with long term consequences…. and the blessing of their statehouse.

    • Doug Hoffer

      It’s my understanding that burning natural gas is not “clean” and creates more than “H2O and CO2 combustion byproducts.”

      A 50 MW natural gas generating plant can be expected to produce 87,000 tons of emissions including CO2, SO2, NOx, and particulates.

      Pretty sure that doesn’t meet the definition of “clean.”

  • David Cardill

    Well, you did not answer my question.

    Natural gas contains Hydro-carbons, a bit of Sulphur, and other trace elements.

    And, it gives off CO, CO2, NO, NO2, SO and SO2 as the six big gasses produced from combustion, and there are also small amounts of HO and H2O2. All of these byproduct gasses contain O, which stands for Oxygen, AND natural gas does not contain ANY Oxygen. So, in order to produce all of these Oxygen rich gasses, it has to take the Oxygen right from our atmosphere.

    Anyway, I call this the most important scientific document EVER compiled by human hands.

    Through the entire human history.

    In no uncertain terms, our Oxygen level is falling. Quickly too. Three times as fast as the rise in CO2. The reason for this, is that the MEDIA keep excluding the carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides and dioxides and the nitrous oxides and dioxides when they report on emissions. This does not mean that combustion does not produce these gasses, it does, it just means that they, for some reason, aren’t talked about. (anyone like a bottle of fresh carbon-monoxide???)

    And, there are right now, Dead Zones in the world. Areas in both air and water that do not contain enough Oxygen to support life.

    Google ‘birds falling from the sky’ and you will see the dead fish stories in that search too.

    And, about this document: you cannot offer an opinion here, because there isn’t one required. Simply measuring something leaves no room for interpretation. These are readings. The first graph on the second page of this document shows two different gasses plotted. The first is the O2N2 fall, and the second is the CO2 rise. If you read this document, you will see that they tied the Oxygen to the Nitrogen for the purpose of measuring the Oxygen. And, look at how fast the Oxygen is going down, compared to the rise in CO2.

    Again, these are just measurements. Counting commodities, and nothing more.

    One potato two potato three potato four.
    Four potato three potato two potato uh oh.

    Yeah: uh oh.

    I know I know, how can there be anything WRONG with supporting the Fossil Empire?

    Just because Vermont does not have any fossil deposits, does not mean that Vermonters cannot support this Empire.

    WHY would anyone in Vermont want to use the existing natural resources and be self reliant to their own power needs, right?

    WHO do those Vermonters think they are???

    And I like how the Fossil Empire always comes up with names like: “The Institute for Energy and the Environment” Yeah, that lets us know that they really do care, and that they are on top of things, like, all of our environmental concerns, RIGHT? You know, things like insane winds, rising temperatures, flash floods, and disappearing insect and bird species and Dead Zones. We can all rest easy knowing that ‘The Institute for Energy and the Environment’ are on the job. (use your cheesy loud radio guy salesman voice when saying that)

    I am a Professional Engineer, Energy Specialist. What you mimic, apparently.

    Do you seriously believe that expanding the debt ridden, burdensome, poisonous Fossil Empire into Vermont is a good idea?

    And, can your ‘friends’ in the Fossil Empire now put back all of the Oxygen that has been taken from our air? Stuff is dying here now because of that removal, and very soon, so will I.

    At the current rate of fall, there will be nothing from The Animal Kingdom left here in as short a period as two years.

    And yes, I agree that this should have been looked at and taken more seriously DECADES AGO, but in any event, no thank you for the offer of expanding the Fossil Empire further into Vermont. Vermont has an abundance of renewable energy to more than justify its own load.

    Sadly, this HAS always been the case. Fossil fuels were never needed by humans for either transportation, nor electrical production.

    Fossil fuels are good at making metals, and that is where they should have remained exclusively.

  • Doug,
    Your understanding is not based on facts. Please seek some guidance from a professional energy systems engineer.
    Burning natural gas is MUCH cleaner than coal, as I stated in a previous post.
    Natural gas has NO particulates which are very harmful to health, kill 20,000-25,000 people per year in the US and more elsewhere.
    You can look all of it up on the internet.

    • Doug Hoffer

      Say what?

      I said nothing about coal.
      I simply responded to an inaccurate characterization of natural gas as “clean.” Please read more carefully.

      Do you work for the natural gas industry?

  • So far the responses to this op-ed by my learned VLS/IEE colleague Kevin Jones seem to miss the mark. I do not understand Kevin to be arguing that natural gas is a renewable resource or is devoid of environmental externalities. His point, I think, is that natural gas is something of an ineluctable reality in New England even though has been obscured in Vermont because natural gas is a generation source upon which our state (uniquely in the region) has not relied for in-state facilities. The reason is simple — we lack the pipelines to get the fuel here.

    Nevertheless, while we are busy debating the future of Vermont Yankee — a tiny sliver of New England’s generation capacity — natural gas generators are on the margin in New England some 70 percent of the time, if memory serves. We need to keep in mind that for purposes of our interconnected bulk power system, “Vermont” doesn’t really exist — we are part of a region-wide power pool and thus we are using a lot of natural gas to generate our electricity.

    The other ineluctable reality is that, particularly with the development of efficient combined-cycle gas generation facilities, natural gas is a vastly cleaner fuel than either coal or oil. I believe it is even cleaner than biomass. To the extent we build pipeline and generation infrastructure that replaces coal or oil units with natural gas-fired capacity, we’re making our electricity grid less carbon intensive while emitting fewer of the other air pollutants that bedevil us.

    Kevin is a fine fellow, but I part company with him over his antipathy to wind turbines on ridgelines. Like Kevin, I reject the epithet NIMBY to characterize opponents of such installiations in their own communities. I take their concerns seriously. I just disagree with them about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines — I think they’re actually quite appealing visually and, moreover, I note that we are well past the point of being able to claim that we don’t impose HUGE impacts on many of our Green Mountain ridgelines. Anyone taken a look at the eastern side of Mount Mansfield lately? Or the towers atop Mount Ascutney, for that matter?

    Nor do I agree entirely with this assertion from Kevin: “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.”

    Surely nobody would really argue, for example, that the Washington Electric Cooperative (WEC) should not be financing its commitment to renewable energy, in part, by selling the renewable energy credits (RECs) associated with its landfill-gas generation facility in Coventry to utilities in southern New England. To keep those RECs here in Vermont, where they are currently of no economic value, would be, in essence, to throw away money that rightly belongs to the members of the cooperative. Indeed, I assume that WEC wouldn’t have built the facility in the first place if it had no prospect of selling the RECs in MAssachusetts or Connecticut. However, it must be pointed out that with the RECs go the “renewable energy” bragging rights — a principle that WEC has been scrupulous in honoring. I don’t know how the investor-owned utilities in Vermont are handling this — I hope they are following WEC’s lead.

    The real question in my view is whether it is reasonable for Vermont to continue to rely on what is essentially a crutch: the availability of REC revenue from Connecticut and Massachusetts, states that could repeal their renewable portfolio standards in a flash. (If you don’t think such retrograde progress is possible, check out the moves New Hampshire is making, even as I type, to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.) Vermont needs to take responsibility for its commitment to renewable energy by adopting its own renewable portfolio standard, as opposed to the aspirational benchmarks we have today.

    Bravo to Kevin Jones for suggesting that it is time for Vermonters to stop being so distracted by Vermont Yankee from discussing the real energy challenges we confront. It’s not a no-brainer that we can even force Vermont Yankee to shut down — Entergy’s arguments to the contrary, though brushed aside by supporters of the Legislature’s pro-shutdown position, are at least colorable.

  • David Cardill

    oooo kay. As, apparently, the only energy specialist in this conversation, again: Vermont has more than enough renewable energy to satisfy it’s own load, and either produce the sum total of Yankee, or double that, IF we wanted to.

    Wind is only one form of electrical production.

    And, what is it about stop burning stuff that people do not understand?

    Look at what hasn’t been done in a very long time. The Bennington Pipe. Yes, constructed pipes have a much much higher feet of head, and are super duper power producers. Why is it that since this wooden pipe was built, that no concrete or plastic ones have been installed? And, installed pipes do not obscure anyones view.

    And I’ll say this again about fire based systems:

    Gaea has been mortally wounded, and is dying. Why anything else matters to you is incomprehensible.

  • David Cardill

    Furthermore, with a lot less pipe than is being proposed to be installed for this Fossil Empire expansion, we could install enough Hydro power to power all of New England.

    • Jamal Kheiry

      Mr. Cardill,

      In your scenario to switch Vermont to ONLY renewables, is price a factor you considered? What would the increase in energy costs be if we switched to only renewables as a replacement for Vermont Yankee?

  • I hope folks can remember two things:

    1) No combination of renewable energy can replace fossil fuels. We have to change our economies and our lifestyles and start to “power down.”

    2) Our forests are working hard for us to combat climate change. Let’s not burn them up for a tiny % of electricity.

  • Dr. Jones,
    A realistic scenario is as follows:

    The NRC will extend the VY license, the Public Service Board, a creation of the legislature, will not grant a Certificate of Public Good, VY continues operating while the case goes to court to protect a multibillion dollar asset of its shareholders, even the Supreme Court where VT will not prevail, because its LEGAL case is very tenuous, as some members of the VLS have stated.

    Legislatures, led by politicos out for political gain, can be led in a direction that is harmful to the economic well-being of Vermonters. Example: the Vermont legislature, swayed by well-meaning folks some years ago to declare hydro power as NOT renewable, recently reversed itself and declared hydro power IS renewable, something most of the rest of the world already knew.

    A long-term power offer from Entergy similar to that from Hydro-Quebec, plus about $5 million/yr for the Clean Energy Development Fund, plus more diligent cleanup by Vermont Yankee; plus more direct oversight of VY by the Vermont government and more openness by Entergy, will probably set the stage for issuing a 20-year license extension from the NRC and a Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Service Board.

    VY’s direct employment is about 650. Direct payroll with benefits is about $80 million per year. The economic multiplier effect is about three, meaning many businesses within a 25-mile radius from VY will be under significant ADDITIONAL economic pressure and will have to cut staffs; estimates are more than 1,000 employees.

    Closing VY will mean this 300 square-mile area will become an economic backwater, just as Windsor, Vermont, became a backwater when companies moved out; Windsor has not recovered after 30 years. Instead of being a significant benefit to the budgets of Massachusetts and Vermont, the VY area will become a significant burden for many years. Vermont’s tax collections will be less by many millions of dollars and payments for unemployment benefits, etc., will be up.

    Vermont’s government and Vermonters need to become more efficient in ALL areas, including energy efficiency. Energy efficiency should be used as a tool by political leaders to lead Vermonters into the efficiency-in-all-areas mindset. Engineering studies show, per dollar invested, energy efficiency projects reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions two to five times more than renewables projects AND create 2 to 3 times jobs.

    Recently, CVPS Corp received approval of a rate increase of almost 8%, one of the largest increases in modern times, with more rate increases coming. The stated justification was improving the CVPS distribution networks. Unstated was that CVPS Corp is absorbing a lot of additional costs related to renewable energy projects, such as cow power, wind, solar, etc.

    Below are some websites of articles. The last three are of particular interest.