Electric co-op: Don’t overload us with renewable energy costs

Vermont has nowhere near the amount of solar and wind generators it will need to meet renewable energy goals written into law, but utilities are nevertheless fighting developers seeking to build more.

That’s the backdrop for Vermont Electric Co-op’s recent announcement that it will oppose all new renewable projects in its service territory that exceed the size of a rooftop solar array.

The utility’s service area covers much of northern Vermont, where land is cheaper than in many other parts of the state. The low-cost real estate has attracted the attention of renewable energy developers, who have disproportionately preferred to build generation projects there instead of, for example, Chittenden County.

Christine Hallquist
Christine Hallquist is CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative. Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist
But VEC leaders aren’t objecting to new projects out of a belief, which many renewable energy opponents have expressed, that it’s unfair for some regions of the state to produce more renewable energy than others.

Rather, said CEO Christine Hallquist, the explosion of such projects in that region has overwhelmed the utility’s distribution network to the point that wind turbines are already being forced on some days to curtail energy production in order not to overload the grid.

Renewable energy proponents have said VEC should simply upgrade its grid, since even the amount of generation that’s overwhelmed the co-op’s grid falls dramatically short of what the state must build in the near future.

David Blittersdorf, a Vermont entrepreneur with significant holdings in wind and solar energy, said VEC’s decision to fight new renewable energy projects in northern Vermont doesn’t square with state policies and statutes that call for dramatically ramped-up renewable generation in the state.

“They’re not supportive of a renewable energy future with their actions,” Blittersdorf said.

Hallquist said she’s not opposed to upgrading the grid in northern Vermont, but said that since these energy goals have been put forward by the state as a whole, the responsibility for accommodating the new generators shouldn’t be borne by VEC ratepayers alone.

State regulators recognize the conundrum this poses and acknowledge the urgency of resolving it, said Ed McNamara, director of the Planning and Energy Resources Division of the Public Service Department.

But it’s an unusually difficult problem the state confronts, in figuring out how to bring hundreds of megawatts of new and widely distributed electric generators onto a grid that was designed to carry electricity in only one direction from only a few very large generators, he said. And it’s not fair to place the burden of upgrading the grid on utility customers for living, through no fault of their own, in a prime location for generating renewable energy, he said.

“The sheer amount of [new renewable energy] over the last two or three years has sort of run past some of the planning we should have been doing, including some of the regulatory planning,” McNamara said. “We’re not sure what the correct answer is.”

The department hasn’t yet asked either the Legislature or the Public Utility Commission to tackle the question, McNamara said.

Asking one or the other entity to figure out a solution could lead to totally different outcomes, McNamara said, and internal discussions at the department are taking place to decide whom to ask to begin working toward a solution.

But until something changes, VEC has no choice but to try to protect its ratepayers by opposing new renewable energy generators in northern Vermont, Hallquist said.

That’s going to require investment, she said.

“We can’t solve the problem without significant upgrades” and new equipment, Hallquist said. “We’re willing to pay, and we’re supportive of Vermont’s renewable energy goals, but we think our customers should pay their fair share but not more.”

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