State energy plan would send state backwards, needs do-over

By Guy Page

State law calls for Vermont to ensure its electricity supply is reliable, sustainable, affordable, and environmentally sound. Unfortunately, the Department of Public Service’s (DPS) proposed Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) would make electricity less reliable, sustainable, and affordable, and more environmentally harmful.

Vermont now enjoys reliable power, in part due to 24/7 provider Vermont Yankee and the modern transmission grid built around it. The CEP dismisses the possibility of Vermont Yankee continuing and instead recommends “distributed” power, including many new solar, wind, biomass, and natural gas power facilities.

Such a system would require much new construction of power facilities and transmission lines. Tellingly little or no detail on specific locations and projects is cited. Recognizing that Vermonters may oppose aggressive, widespread development in their backyards, the CEP recommends specific and comprehensive permitting changes that would ease plant construction, including reorganizing government to move projects along more briskly, and requiring opponents to first try mediation. Any industry that needs a transitory, elected government to shield it from Vermonters is not reliable because it is at risk whenever those concerned about the environment, property rights, and/or their pocketbooks gather to vote or advocate policy.

Also, intermittent solar and wind power requires a big “buddy” making power 24/7, consistently. At least in the short-term, the CEP would replace Vermont Yankee with predominantly fossil-fuel power from the New England power grid. Yet the grid’s operators say closing Vermont Yankee would destabilize regional voltage, requiring improvements or upgrades. Furthermore, many older, coal-burning New England power plants face closure or expensive upgrades. Leaning heavily on the grid is a step back in reliability.

As for affordability – the CEP offers no accessible, concrete, overall “this is how much it will cost ratepayers” assessment. The onus for answering this critical question is squarely on DPS. But most cost indicators are “up.” For example, the CEP would increase the total amount of expensive, subsidized “standard offer” solar, wind, hydro, biomass and “cowpower” electricity. “Standard offer” solar power costs 24-30 cents per kilowatt, or approximately 500 percent more than market-based, price competitive power sources today.

The plan also suggests building new natural gas power plants. Apart from public outcry that might ensue due to proximity, safety and air pollution, upfront construction costs of plants and feeder pipelines would be considerable. And finally, the CEP projects that Efficiency Vermont charges on ratepayers’ bills will rise 75% from 2011 through 2023 – from $38 million to $67 million.

Regarding carbon and smog, the CEP says Vermont must lead the charge against global warming, while at the same time the DPS plan would drastically increase Vermont’s power-based carbon footprint! At present Vermont power producers make relatively little carbon dioxide, with just two large fossil-fuel burning sites (McNeil in Burlington, 50 MW and Ryegate, 20 MW).

Replacing Vermont Yankee with natural gas, however, would add about 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually for Vermont’s share of the plant’s power alone, according to the Partnership’s preliminary calculations. Also increasing are acid rain, smog and other negative impacts of fossil-fuel “waste storage” in Vermont waters, uplands, and the very lungs of her people. New generating facilities and transmission corridors would occupy and destroy countless square miles of wildlife habitat.

Vermont in 2011 faces unprecedented challenges due to the high cost of health care, the declining funding from the federal government, and the longterm economic impact of Hurricane Irene recovery. In these difficult times Vermonters need specific, measurable policies that, if implemented, would actually promote sustainable, reliable, affordable and environmentally-sound energy. The CEP should be overhauled accordingly.

Guy Page is communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership and author of a detailed briefing paper on the proposed Comprehensive Energy Plan, available upon request and at the link provided above. VTEP is a 90-member organization of labor groups, individuals, not-for-profits, development organizations, and businesses, including Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee.