Vermont needs realistic, rate-friendly energy innovation

By Bruce Lisman

The state’s renewable power plan is filled with contradictions and unknowns. Like the proposed health care reform, it has no cost framework, no clear understanding of consequences, nor even a firm grasp on the problem it would “solve”. As such it threatens all Vermonters’ economic prosperity.

Campaign for Vermont supports renewable power and energy innovation because enriching unfriendly countries is bad policy, and fossil-fuel emissions are dangerous. Vermont and its citizens require energy reliability and affordability. Vermont needs more information. In a nutshell, here’s what we know about renewables right now: who pays? We do. But how much will it cost and how reliable will it be? We don’t know.

Campaign for Vermont believes our state needs an electricity plan without empty sloganeering. Politicians say building a 90% renewable energy future will create jobs, save the climate and foster energy independence. It all sounds good. And it is, in the abstract, until we learn about the cost and reliability. For example, most renewable power sources are intermittent; that is they don’t operate reliably all the time. But citizens and job creators need affordable, on-demand “base load” electricity every minute of every day. Furthermore, Vermont state law obliges utilities to provide customers with low-cost, reliable power.

The power source must match our goals. Do we want to protect our climate from carbon, but without VY? Then the utilities are doing the right thing buying nuclear generated electricity from N.H. at a low price, but wrong by buying hundreds of megawatts of fossil fuel power from southern New England. Should we build low-carbon, alternative energy? Then we must do it affordably over time, meanwhile using a low-carbon, base-load electricity ‘bridge’ to ensure reliability. And forget the fiction about alternative energy alone jumpstarting the Vermont economy! Sure, it has its place: as a jobs-creating partner with Vermont Yankee, which all by itself creates 1,200 jobs and $90 million of annual economic impact. But finally, what about natural gas? Maybe, if the pipelines can be built, and especially if it replaces other high-emission fossil fuels. Our eyes must be open – for every path to energy independence there is an economic and environmental price tag.

The legislature and Governor Shumlin support a mandated RPS and an expanded SPEED program. Say what? Look behind the acronym curtain and you see utilities and ratepayers being forced to buy highly subsidized intermittent power that would require transmission upgrades and expensive, technologically immature storage technology. Supporters say storage is the only way to dramatically increase renewable energy capacity. But according to Vermont Electric Co-op it would cost Vermonters and extra 23-cents per kilowatt hour. This we know: the more we build and buy renewables, the more it will cost us. What’s affordable? Campaign for Vermont believes that decision belongs to Vermonters.

A 2011 National Renewable Laboratory study shows three out of four Northeastern U.S. ratepayers would not be willing to pay even $5-$20 more per month for electricity that uses more renewables. When Central Vermont Public Service introduced “Cow Power” with media and marketing fanfare, very few customers signed up. Nearly 70% of the customers polled said they would – but that was before they actually had to pay, but after implementation of the plan only about 2% actually signed up. Lesson: an economic model that results in higher costs without making a clear case for the benefits results in consumer rejection.

Campaign for Vermont supports an innovative electricity supply that is affordable, reliable and balanced. Vermont must secure a long-term base-load power supply “bridge” to ensure ratepayers are not forced to pay for power they have not demanded. To learn more about the Campaign, go to www.CampaignForVermont.org.

About the author: Bruce Lisman of Shelburne established Campaign for Vermont because he is optimistic about a vibrant and prosperous Vermont economy. Born and raised in Burlington’s Old North End, he is a graduate of BHS and UVM (class of 1969).