Alternate Energy Choices and Challenges in Vermont

by | Aug 1, 2011

The small state of Vermont isn’t often a hotbed of national news. Nonetheless, the Green Mountain State does pride itself on its progressive attitudes towards the environment and alternative energy. For example, the state enacted one of the country’s first feed-in tariff, the Vermont Energy Act of 2009, to encourage the generation of small-scale alternative energy by providing long-term contracts to producers. More recently, in May Vermont passed a wide-ranging renewable energy bill, designed to promote “home grown” electricity.

With this track record, one would assume that Vermont would serve as a role model for the rest of the country (and particularly its sister states in New England) for how to develop, expand, and transition to alternate energy technologies. And in fact, the state does provide a very instructive example — although it’s not always one that consists solely of decisive leadership and clear-headed decision making. Instead, Vermont’s ongoing struggle with developing a cohesive energy strategy offers a microcosm for the U.S., and demonstrates that even in the most eco-friendly environments, alternative energy options face major challenges as they evolve from mere abstract concepts into actual operational facilities visible from one’s back yard.

Nuclear Energy Dilemma

Currently, Vermont generates roughly half of the electricity it uses, and purchases the rest from outside sources such as Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian utility owned by the Quebec government. By far the largest in-state energy source is the nuclear plant Vermont Yankee, which accounts for around 70% of the total electricity created within Vermont. Entergy, the owners of Vermont Yankee, recently received approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to operate the facility until 2032. However, the Vermont legislature in 2010 voted overwhelmingly against re-licensing the plant beyond 2012. The state also believes it has final say over re-licensing irrespective of the NRC’s decision; Entergy is currently disputing this in court.

Whichever way the court decides, it’s clear that Vermont appears fully willing to accommodate the impending loss of 35% of the energy used by the state. Therefore, short of a radical and unprecedented statewide program to reduce energy consumption, Vermont is faced with three choices: (1) purchase more power from entities such as Hydro-Quebec, (2) find alternate in-state sources of energy, or (3) some combination of the above.

In some respects, Vermont’s efforts to close Vermont Yankee mirror Germany’s recent decision to phase out its dependence on nuclear power. The major difference is that Germany has given itself a decade to complete this process, while Vermont seems ready to make the transition within two years — making the need to develop alternate energy sources especially acute.

Solar: Right Idea, Wrong Place?

One possible solution is solar energy, a technology in which regional interest appears high. For instance, Vermont’s recently passed renewable energy bill significantly simplifies the approval process for small-scale (less than 5 kW) residential and commercial solar projects. The bill, which is scheduled to take effect January 2012, essentially eliminates permitting for these projects — the customer simply completes a registration form and certificate of compliance with grid connection requirements. The local utility then has 10 days to challenge the project, after which installation can proceed. Supporters hail this as the nation’s most streamlined process for getting small-scale solar installations up and running, eliminating one of the biggest obstacles to the adoption of solar energy. This enthusiasm has translated into a number of solar energy facilities being planned and/or constructed around the state.

Unfortunately, in terms of solar power, nature has dealt the Green Mountain State a very poor hand. Indeed, the state may well be the least promising location in the entire country for the generation of solar energy. For instance, Vermont ranks in the bottom five states for solar power potential according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) “sun index” rating system. Further, the state’s energy need peaks during winter months, when sunshine is least available. And the notoriously fierce Yankee winters, featuring strong winds and heavy snowfalls that typically occur from November into April, can easily damage or otherwise limit the efficiency of solar panels.

These obstacles greatly reduce the viability of solar energy as an energy source, beyond small, on-site applications. Thus, despite its popularity in the public’s mind as a seemingly infinite supply of clean, renewable energy, solar appears to be a singularly poor choice for large-scale energy production in Vermont.

Hydro: A Vermont Tradition

In view of the disadvantages of trying to eke solar energy out of the uncooperative local climate, Vermonters may be better served by three energy sources which their state offers in abundance: biomass, wind, and hydro. Of these, hydro is the most developed and also enjoys the longest regional history. For over a century, water-powered mills dotted the New England countryside. By the early 20th century, these mills were a significant source of both electrical and mechanical power in Vermont. Rural electrification significantly reduced the need for these mills by the 1950’s; since then there’s been a major shift in public perception about rivers and streams away from utilitarian economic exploitation and towards preservation based on recreational and aesthetic concerns. This change in attitude has resulted in legislation that places significant restraints on the development of waterways that did not exist back in the heyday of the village mill.

Today, hydro provides between 10% and 20% of the electricity generated in Vermont, which represents the largest percentage supplied by a non-nuclear renewable energy technology in the state. Hydro’s potential is significantly higher; the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the state’s total hydro generation capacity exceeds 2,000 MW, more than enough to supply all Vermont’s electricity needs (although other sources believe the true potential is much lower than this). And with the advent of the Vermont Energy Act of 2009, the owner of a small hydro plant is ensured a ready market for all the electricity it produces. However, Vermont’s difficult, complex, and time-consuming approval process for building a hydro facility has received harsh criticism, and is widely viewed as a major impediment to the development of small hydropower in the state. As a result, there appears to be little current movement towards expanding the state’s hydro capacity.

Wind: Up in the Air

Wind power would seem to be another natural fit for Vermont. New England is one of the more windy regions in North America, and Vermont offers innumerable hills upon which to site wind turbines. A number of wind projects are currently in various stages of development throughout the state, comprising some 140 MW of potential power capacity.

However, in nearly every case there is local opposition. This is primarily based on aesthetics and the desire to preserve the natural beauty of Vermont’s ridge lines, both for residents and tourists. Others argue against the disruption of mountain habitats as well as the danger the spinning blades present to birds. This opposition, which often involves court appearances and regulatory challenges, has significantly slowed the adoption of what might otherwise appear to be a very suitable energy generation option.

Biomass: The “Green” in Green Mountain State

Flying somewhat under the radar — perhaps undeservedly so — is biomass energy production. As with hydro, biomass energy has a long history with Vermont, especially if one substitutes the word “wood” for “biomass.” According to the American Council on Renewable Energy, the state’s greatest potential for renewable energy development lies in its biomass sector. Nearly 80% of Vermont is forested, offering a readily available and sustainable resource from which to develop wood based technologies. And research into cellulosic-based ethanol technologies offers the potential to make Vermont a major player in the biofuels sector as well.

Currently, several of the state’s schools are heated with biomass. For example, in 2010 Green Mountain College installed a “combined heat and power” (CHP) wood-chip heating system to heat 155 acres of campus buildings. And in June of 2011, residents in the state capital of Montpelier approved a $2.75 million bond issue to help finance a $20 million biomass project to expand the state government’s wood-fired heating system into city schools and government buildings. But despite these projects, biomass remains a relatively minor player in terms of large-scale production of electricity within Vermont.

As Vermont Goes, So Goes the Nation?

Interest in alternate energies is currently fueled primarily by environmental concerns (although with the advancing price of petroleum, economics increasingly factors into the equation as well). But those same environmental concerns also motivate us to look at all technologies very critically. And in doing so, we often find that a technology that’s good for the overall global environment may have a local impact that nearby residents find objectionable. It will take vision — and direction — to properly balance these local objections against long-term benefits.

This is why the implementation of a strategic vision for sustainable energy production will be very difficult to achieve from the grass roots level — a situation Vermont (and eventually America as a whole) will need to bear in mind as it moves forward towards its goals of sustainable and clean energy independence. Achieving these goals will entail examining each technology on its own merits, and choosing the most appropriate options based not on its trendiness or emotional appeal, but rather by carefully considering how to make the best use of what the local resources have to offer.

Dick McCarrick is an analyst with Foresight Science & Technology.

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