Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Mikayla McDonald, who works for 350.org, where it was first posted.
The Legislature has wasted no time in attempting to move us closer to a fossil fuel free future. In the first legislative session after the release of the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, the House has taken on the challenge of implementing the plan’s admirable goals. On March 20, the House voted to pass a bill that would establish a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and expand incentives for small-scale renewable generation in Vermont.
While the bill sets forth some of the critical concepts needed to move us towards carbon neutrality, 350 Vermont and fellow energy advocates are concerned that its targets are not ambitious enough to make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or to spur the necessary rapid development of in-state and regional renewable electricity generation. To avoid the worst of the climate chaos that is to come, Vermont must lead the way in implementing significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in a rapid time frame. As climate advocates, it’s important for us to understand the weak points in this legislation, to suggest ways that it can be strengthened, and to get involved in making visionary climate policy a reality.
Two very positive outcomes of this bill would be an expansion of the Standard Offer program, and the creation of a working group to study how to achieve the goals set out in the Comprehensive Energy Plan. The bill as written would expand the Standard Offer program by 100 MW, to equal a total of 150 MW by 2023. This program guarantees long-term contracts of a fixed per-kWh price to small renewable plants in Vermont. The Standard Offer is one of the most important tools we have to promote rapid, predictable, and affordable development of renewable energy. 350VT would like to see the program be continually strengthened and expanded going forward.
In addition, the bill asks the Department of Public Service to put together a working group to study and report on the policies and funding mechanisms needed to achieve the goal set out in the Comprehensive Energy Plan – 90 percent of Vermont’s total energy to come from renewable resources by 2050. The report, to be published by the end of 2013, will include considerations of all types of energy – electricity, thermal energy, energy efficiency, and transportation – and will consult many stakeholders including environmental advocates.
The main focus of this bill is the creation of a RPS, which would require utilities to purchase 75 percent of their electricity from “renewable” energy by 2032, with 35 percent of that from “new renewable energy” (built since 2005) connected to the Vermont grid.
The 35 percent new renewable target actually would qualify as renewable energy, because it requires utilities to own renewable energy credits (the attributes of a kWh of electricity that make it renewable and environmentally beneficial) to satisfy this target. The fact that “new” is defined as energy from plants built since 2005 should make us question how much of this target would actually encourage the development of more renewable plants in the region, because much of the 35 percent target could be satisfied by existing plants.
Overall, the most critical concept contained within the RPS is the definition of “renewable”. Energy should not be considered renewable unless it retains its environmentally-beneficial attributes, called renewable energy credits, or RECs. A kWh of renewable energy can be sold with or without its REC, but when it is separated from its REC, that kWh becomes a unit of “brown power”, or non-renewable power. The REC can be sold somewhere else to satisfy some other state’s RPS, and cannot be counted toward satisfying our own Vermont RPS. Or can it?
When a REC is owned by a utility to satisfy a renewable goal and not sold elsewhere, we call that “retiring” the REC. Under Vermont’s existing renewable energy target, called the Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) program, 20 percent of Vermont’s energy must be provided by in-state renewable generation by 2017. But the SPEED goal does not require utilities to retire the RECs associated with this power. Essentially, the renewable energy developed under the SPEED program is double-counted, once to satisfy our SPEED goal, and a second time when its RECs are sold elsewhere to meet another renewable energy goal. Therefore, the energy produced under the SPEED program may not be renewable and may not reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions.
If we want to create a RPS that causes the meaningful reduction of climate-changing emissions, we must mandate that all RECs be retired at the point of ownership by utilities. A stronger RPS would have a quicker ramp up of REC retirement in order to reduce emissions sooner rather than later, recognizing the urgency of our climate crisis.
Another issue with the total 75 percent “renewable” energy target set out in the bill is that a large portion of that target can be met by “renewables” of any size from anywhere, including from HydroQuebec. Many do not believe large scale hydroelectric power, particularly from HydroQuebec, should be considered renewable because of the environmental devastation caused by the damming of large rivers and the flooding, sedimentation, habitat disturbance, and human displacement that come along with it.
Lastly, under the Standard Offer program, biomass energy has a 50 percent efficiency standard for small-scale renewable plants. We and other environmental advocates believe that this efficiency standard should be applied to the RPS as a whole. Vermont has a limited supply of sustainably harvested wood, and in order to minimize ecological impacts while maximizing its potential to heat our homes and provide us with electricity, biomass energy must be as efficient as possible, requiring thermal-only or combined-heat-and-power generation.
While portions of the bill may not be as strong as we would like, in all it moves Vermont a step closer to the creation of a carbon neutral energy system. We applaud the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee for their hard work and dedication, and look forward to help strengthen the bill in the Senate.
For more information on the bill and its various components, here is a link to a short summary by VNRC. If you would like to read the bill in full, here is a link to the version passed out of Committee on Friday (starts on p.981 of the House Calendar). If you have any questions or would like to get involved in 350VT’s advocacy for this bill, please contact Mikayla McDonald at [email protected]