Vermont Renewable Plan is Wishful Thinking

by Meredith Angwin

In 2011, the Vermont Department of Public Service issued a Comprehensive Energy Plan that asserts that 90 percent of all energy used in the state ­— including electricity, transportation and building heating — will be provided from renewable sources by 2050.

Who could argue with the idea that almost all of the state’s energy should come from renewable energy by mid-century?

Probably nobody would argue, until they realize that what is called a “plan” isn’t actually a plan; it’s a collection of roughly sketched ideas, some good, some not so good. At a hearing of the Vermont Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, one woman made a very clear statement. She said that the state energy plan is a collection of slogans, not a planning document. She was basically correct.

Nevertheless, the energy plan is guiding many statewide energy decisions: expediting small hydro installations, attempting to close Vermont Yankee, supporting ridgeline wind development. The realization that the 90% goal is influencing statewide energy policy is particularly troubling when you examine some of its implications.

For starters, it is hard to use renewable energy for transportation and heating unless we use electricity for these sectors. We can make electricity with renewable energy, and then use it to run electric cars and heat pumps. Both these choices will increase the demand for electricity.

Right now, Vermont uses 6,000 GWh of electricity per year. (A GWh is a million kilowatt hours.) My estimate is that Vermont would need 18,000 GWh annually to achieve the 90% goal by switching to electric cars, heat pumps and so forth. That’s an outrageously big number, but it coincides with two other rough calculations I’ve seen from renewable advocates. In a recent op-ed, Charles McKenna, a local Sierra Club member, estimated the state would need 15,000 GWh in order to achieve the 90% renewable goal. In a recent Green Energy Times, David Blittersdorf, a renewable developer, said that the 90% goal will require three times the electricity we use now. (Three times 6,000 is 18,000.)

To put this number in perspective, consider that Vermont currently buys approximately 2,000 GWh from Hydro-Quebec. This is about a third of our current electricity demand, but it would be only a small fraction of the electricity needed for a 90% renewable goal.

Unfortunately for Vermont, renewable sources tend to be diffuse, not energy dense. If we really tried to make this much electricity with renewables, we would have to devote much of Vermont’s land to energy generation. For example, Lowell Mountain’s wind turbines each sweep the area of a football field because wind is not a dense energy source. The average wind can blow some trash around, but it can’t pick up a small dog and move it. If you want to make enough wind-based electricity to make it worthwhile to put in a transmission line, you need to build a wind turbine with a blade that is more than half the length of a football field. Then the blade can capture enough wind.

I did another rough set of calculations to estimate how many wind turbines, biomass plants, solar panels and so forth would be needed to generate 18,000 GWh of electricity. The results are appalling. For example, making 18,000 GWh using wind turbines would take about 2,000 turbines, covering 400 to 700 miles of ridgeline. Vermont is only 160 miles long. Making the same amount of electricity from biomass would require 12 million acres of woodlands, sustainably harvested. That’s twice the size of Vermont.

Of course, the state would be using a mixture of renewables, not just one type. These are crude estimates, and my husband and I are working at improving them for a report on the land use implications of renewables.

Adopting an unrealistic, over-arching energy plan that calls for almost all energy to come from renewable sources essentially confers a blessing on all proposed renewable projects. Every project advances the “plan.” Objecting to to any project supposedly reveals the person as an opponent of good environmental policy or a so-called NIMBY — someone who will try to stop any development in their proximity.

People who are against overly extensive renewable development are not NIMBYs. They are not blithely ignoring environmental considerations or greedily focusing on financial factors. It is quite possible to be in favor of moderate renewable development and environmental stewardship. Indeed, in my opinion, moderate renewable development and environmental stewardship are two ideas that go well together. For example, a goal of 20 percent of electricity supply from new in-state renewables would be ambitious but within reach.

We also need to encourage conservation, and to its credit, the Comprehensive Energy Plan is very clear on that. On the other hand, future conservation is built into my estimates of electricity demand. Even with conservation, there will be significant energy demand, and we have to plan for it.

However, our energy plan needs to be more than a collection of slogans.

Meredith Angwin worked in many sectors of the utility industry for more than 20 years. She is the director of the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont public policy research organization that emphasizes free-market solutions. Angwin and her husband, George Angwin, are developing a report for the Institute that will analyze the land use implications of the Vermont Energy Plan.