Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org
Having become a state tilting increasingly to the political left, Vermont has been known in recent years for pushing the envelope for progressive causes.
An effort to institute single-payer health care crashed on the rocks late last year, but another liberal legislative goal crossed the finish line: Vermont lawmakers passed and outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill requiring the state’s electric utilities to reach 75 percent renewable energy generation by 2032.
That’s on top of what’s been called an “aspirational,” non-legislated goal calling on the Green Mountain State to derive 90 percent of its entire energy sector — including cars and home heating — from renewables by 2050.
All that green energy is anticipated to come from a mix of solar, wind and hydropower.
“Vermont is leading America in getting energy policy right,” Shumlin said last monthafter signing a comprehensive energy bill that calls for the state’s utilities to account for 55 percent of its sales from renewables within two years before ramping up to 75 percent within 17 years.
The bill passed by a wide margin, but not everyone is happy. Even some green groups seriously doubt the 75 percent and 90 percent thresholds can be met.
The new mandates are “not realistic because we have no idea what kinds of technologies are going to be available to achieve it,” said Mark Whitworth, executive director of the renewable advocacy group Energize Vermont.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West here,” Whitworth told Watchdog.org. “It’s a free for all.”
The new mandates have also drawn scorn from the state’s free-market research organization, the Ethan Allen Institute.
“It’s not going to have any effect on global climate change. It’s not going to affect the climate of Vermont,” said Rob Roper, the institute’s president. “So that’s the worthless part.
“The worse than worthless part is they’re going to have tremendous ecological damage as a result of this policy because they’re going to have to cover hundreds of miles with wind turbines that kill bats and birds and disrupt bear habitats. And they’re going to have to put out at least tens of thousands of acres of solar panels.”
The man who served as the driving force behind the legislation in the Statehouse says the new energy requirements are what the state’s voters overwhelmingly want.
“There is overriding support for this,” said state Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, pointing to the fact the 75 percent requirement passed the state House of Representatives by a 121-24 vote and the state Senate, 22-6.
Saying, “I’m somebody who believes in a clean energy future,” Klein has a personal website linking to a video from activist and Vermont resident Bill McKibben, co-founder of the outspoken climate change group 350.org. In the video, McKibben singled out Klein and other Vermont lawmakers as “one of our most devoted environmental legislators.”
Klein dismissed the renewable standards’ critics as being “in the forefront of a very vocal minority” and insisted to Watchdog.org the 75 percent mandate can and will be met.
“Meeting the power goals for electric demand is, I don’t want to say easy, but is absolutely doable,” Klein said in a telephone interview. “It’s within anyone’s reach and manageable.”
Representatives of the solar and wind industries agree.
“With renewables already making up nearly 50 percent of new capacity added in the U.S. since 2008, and numerous studies demonstrating that solar power can be reliably and cost-effectively integrated into the grid, Vermont’s goals are eminently achievable,” said Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, in an email to Watchdog.org.
SEIA officials say they were involved in the legislative effort in Vermont to pass the renewables bill.
But what about the 90 percent goal for every source of energy across the board coming from renewables?
Even Klein acknowledged that may prove difficult.
“Most of that is transportation-based,” Klein said, “and that’s a tough nut to crack here in Vermont because we’re so rural.”
“I guess the supposition by energy planners in the state is that electric vehicles are going to be the means by which we virtually eliminate fossil fuel usage,” Whitworth told Watchdog.org. “And electric vehicles right now are pretty pathetic. They’re expensive, they have extraordinarily limited range, they take hours to charge and they don’t work well in cold weather.”
“If you go for that more ambitious (90 percent) goal it would require covering an area about a quarter the size of the Green Mountain Forest with solar panels,” Roper said. “Will they have to cut down trees to make this happen? Maybe they can find enough open pasture land than currently exists in order to do it. But that’s open pasture land. People come to Vermont and live in Vermont expect to see cows in those pastures, not solar panels. It will have a devastating effect on the quality of life.”
“Yes, it is ambitious and it’s going to require the development of a lot of wind and a lot of solar in the state,” Klein said. “But that’s what we want.”
Wind and solar are classified as variable renewable energy because they hit their peak generation at variable points, such as when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
While wind and solar generation have been growing, their variability runs into economic trouble since the electric grid has to use traditional energy such as natural gas and coal to back them up.
What this dynamic means as Vermont goes forward with its renewable mandates is an open question, but Klein remains upbeat.
“The cost of building (new) projects and putting them online has dropped dramatically to the point where if it’s a wind project, for example, it can compete with just about any source of power that our utilities buy,” Klein said.
Supporters insist the new rules, which will go into effect Jan. 1, 2017, will actually save Vermont ratepayers money in the long run.
“We are becoming more and more self-sufficient on our energy supply that is abundant,” Klein said. “The beauty of wind and solar and hydro is that once you’ve paid off the capital costs, you know what the cost of your fuel is going forward forever because it’s nothing.”
“Of course this is going to cost more,” Whitworth said, who blogged that he believes predictions of $275 million in savings is based on faulty modeling. “(Hydropower) electricity is going to be market priced. Wind and solar are going to be more expensive than that.”
Roper pointed to a study conducted by the Ethan Allen Institute’s Energy Education project that claimed in order to generate 90 percent of Vermont’s energy requirements from local, renewable sources, as much as 700 miles of ridgeline would need to be developed.
“Look at our opportunity costs of our energy policy,” Roper said. “We’re doing all of this which is bad for the state but at the same time we are not investing in cleaning up our Lake Champlain and our other waterways. We’ve got all these algae blooms because we’re not putting any investment into the infrastructures for our sewage treatment. So that’s why it’s worse than worthless.”
“The reason we’re seeing the rapid increase, for example, in the development of solar is simple: Because that’s what the consumer wants,” Klein said. “It’s not because some out-of-state development company based on some rules and incentives we created are getting rich building something that doesn’t have any value. These are being built because Vermonters want it.”