Commentary

McDonald: One step closer to climate leadership

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]

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  • Maykala,
    The law sets RE goals, but does not include/mention a schedule of implementation, capital costs, levelized (Owning and O&M) cost, above-market SPEED program rates at which the RE energy is to be sold to utilities and capital subsidies required to attract capital.
    Current law, set up in 2009, has a goal of 50 MW of SPEED RE capacity at a cost of about $230 million by 2017, per VT-DPS
    Latest news from VT-DPS:
    7.1 MW of the 50 MW has been built after 3 years.
    20% of Vermont’s energy consumption as RE by 2017 is unattainable (16% is more realistic, in my opinion).
    The new proposed law sets a goal of 50 MW (current SPEED) + 100 MW (new SPEED) of RE capacity by 2032 and counts as NEW renewables any RE capacity built since 2005.
    Utilities will cooperate because they will receive any rate increases they need to cover their extra costs for transmission and distribution and for buying the RE energy at SPEED rates.
    Households and businesses, already stressed by the Great Recession and the damage from Irene will bear the brunt of the electric cost increases which will lead to increased costs for goods and services and lower living standards.
    The owners of the RE facilities will have generous 20-year guaranteed returns on their invested capital.
    “The Legislature has wasted no time in attempting to move us closer to a fossil-fuel-free future.”
    This statement is an egregious example of pie-in-the sky RE fantasy to lull the lay public and obtain its support for RE, but that cannot be backed up by any existing technologies. As a result a great misunderstanding exists among the lay public that wind and solar energy are clean, near-CO2-free, etc. As we saw on Lowell Mountain, it is far from clean, environmentally benign, etc.
    Wind and solar energy cannot exist unless the grid has adequate gas-fired, gas turbine-based, quick-ramping/quick-starting generating capacity that operates in part-load-ramping mode to ramp down when wind energy surges and ramp up when wind energy ebbs to maintain near-perfect balance on the grid, to maintain frequency and voltage variations within set ranges, and to avoid brown-outs and black-outs.
    Adequate gas supply is absolutely essential for variable, intermittent wind and solar energy. Also about 10-15 percent of the year there is no wind energy because wind speeds are too low (less than 7.5 mph) to turn the rotors or too high for safety. About 65-70 percent of the year there is near-zero PV solar energy. That means nearly ALL existing generators will be required (staffed, maintained in good working order, fossil fueled) to provide energy when wind and solar are minimal.

    • Townsend Peters

      The Dept. of Public Service estimated the rate impact of the bill at just over a half cent per kWh in 2025. Somewhat different from your doomsday picture.

  • Steve Wright

    Thanks to the author for her effort to make this bill more understandable.

    As an effective response to existing climate change the bill is a failure. It is a failure because it does not reduce Vermont’s carbon dioxide/greenhouse gas emissions, supposedly the major cause of advancing climate change.

    About 95% of Vermont’s total emissions comes from four sources. These are: transportation, home heating fuel, commercial/industrial operation and agricultural practices.

    Effective climate change demands that we reduce emissions. H468 does not do that. Yes, it does help prop up the renewable energy industry but that act alone does not effectively reduce emissions.

    H468 reminds me of the phenomenon of “displacement activity” in certain animal populations, especially primates. Such an activity is designed to discourage a potential threat while avoiding direct physical combat.

    If the Vermont Legislature is serious about designing effective responses to climate change–confronting the aggressor–then it must begin attacking fossil fuel emissions, not beating on its figurative chest.

    • Townsend Peters

      The Dept. of Public Service estimates the carbon reduction from the bill to about half a million tons, a bit more than the zero you assert.

  • Ms. McDonald,

    Vermont’s contribution to the world’s GHG load is negligible, so even if the state went completely GHG-free overnight, it would not “avoid the worst of the climate chaos that is to come.” Similarly, Vermont simply cannot “lead the way” in this regard; even if the state succeeds in its GHG-free endeavor, its experience will be replicable absolutely nowhere else of import. In almost every way – demographically, economically, geographically, politically – Vermont is not like the rest of the U.S., and certainly nothing like China or India.

    The urgency to move Vermont toward renewables quickly will cost its citizens much, and for little or no appreciable return.

    • Townsend Peters

      Mr. Kheiry, your argument is simply a mask for inaction. When you commit to campaign vigorously for China, the U.S., and the European Union collectively to take drastic action to combat climate change, then we could start to take your “Vermont is too small” argument seriously.

      • Mr. Peters,

        I was pointing out that Ms. McDonald’s rhetoric exaggerates the urgency of Vermont’s switchover to renewables. What I do outside of this comment thread isn’t going to change the validity of my contention one way or another.

  • Rob Pforzheimer

    The writer of this pie in the sky nonsense seems to consider himself a visionary. Well envision living in the Northeast Kingdom, near 400-500 foot loud, red strobe lit, bird & bat killing, habitat destroying wind turbines and having your quality of life and property value diminished by these environmentally destructive industrial wind projects that will do absolutely nothing to end the supposed “climate crisis.”

    • Hi Rob
      As time goes by more and more people that are now faced with a Turbine in their back yard is finding out what all of the fuss has been about all this time…
      Obama could have stopped this long ago but has made his stand
      on this issue and the Pipelines…
      I just hope and pray that more people wake up and decide to take a definite stand on all of this destruction to this Country…You have been so devoted toward sharing the info that you have with all of us…and I thank you…
      Lets keep spreading the word to others…Thank You Rob..

    • Townsend Peters

      I expect the writer of this article envisions _herself_ to be a woman.

    • Rob Pforzheimer

      The VT DPS “estimates” are anything that Shumlin and the legislature want them to be. Anyone following the big wind issue in VT knows that the DPS and ANR are totally politicized and saying whatever they are told to say. In the PSB hearings for Lowell, DPS’s so-called expert witness Lamont and ANR witnesses Sorenson and Austin changed their initial testimony to accommodate GMP. The DPS & ANR have no credibility. DPS revealing their calculations as Mr Post suggests in his comment would be interesting & amusing.

      The bogus DPS estimates of carbon savings are strictly theoretical and not demonstrated anywhere in the real world. The estimates are calculated as if wind generation directly offsets coal generation, which in practice it does not do. Figures for the emissions emitted in building and transport of wind turbines, and the loss of CO2 absorbing forests are omitted from these computer models calculations.
      Several studies from around the world show that intermittent wind power actually increases emissions.

      Proponents of industrial wind in VT want this RPS because they are afraid the incentives to build these useless, unneeded, environmentally destructive projects will disappear if the PTC, 1603 grants and 1705 loan guarantees are not extended by congress. The RPS mandates will require VT utilities to use wind and they will be allowed to pass the cost of lost subsidies on to VT ratepayers.

  • Townsend Peters

    Contrary to Mr. Wright’s post above, the Dept. of Public Service estimates the carbon reduction from the bill to be about half a million tons.

  • Rob Macgregor

    A large part of VT’s greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided by moving to electricity as a power source for transportation and home heating purposes.

    Accordingly, efforts to get more of the state’s electricity from renewable sources can have an impact on the state’s other sources of GHG emissions.

  • Townsend Peters,

    “The Department of Public Service estimated the rate impact of the bill at just over a half cent per kWh in 2025.”
    That sounds benign, nothing to worry about. Why then is the state so secretive, so hush-hush, so rushy?
    The VT-DPS has to have made year-by-year spreadsheet calculations to quantify the number. If it did not, it would be grossly negligent.
    The VT-DPS should make public its assumptions and year-by-year spreadsheet calculations regarding the RPS and the 150 MW of RE systems by 2032. I am sure I, and others with technical education and experience, will be able to understand them.
    Instead of repeating VT-DPS, I and others are curious about:
    How much will be the capital cost year-by-year?
    How much CO2 emissions will be reduced by each technology, year-by-year?
    How are the CO2 emissions reduction calculated?
    What will be the rates/kWh at which the RE will be sold to utilities year-by-year for investors to make their returns?

    “The Department of Public Service estimates the carbon reduction from the bill to be about half a million US tons.”
    That is a miniscule quantity compared to world emissions, hardly worth the effort and cost to already-struggling households and businesses.
    The VT-DPS had to have made year-by-year spreadsheet calculations to quantify the number.
    Compare this with the world’s present CO2 emissions and projected emissions by 2035.
    World CO2 emissions (in 1,000 million metric tonnes) were 29.89, 31.63 and 33.51 in 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively, projected by the EIA at 33.51 x 1.5 = 50.27 in 2035.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Global_Warming_Observed_CO2_Emissions_from_fossil_fuel_burning_vs_IPCC_scenarios.jpg
    Vermont households and businesses will be forced to subsidize these politically-motivated, subsidized RE schemes. They have a right to know BEFORE they get hit in the pocketbook by the RE which costs about 2-5 times annual average NE grid prices.