By George Coppenrath
Vermonters generally aren’t known for getting the bad end of the deal. The old Yankee trader of legend looked at every angle before the handshake and rarely, if ever, came out the poorer.
Alas the same cannot be said for our electricity portfolio, which is getting more expensive, and despite lots of attention to renewable power, browner and dirtier. According to a recent study released by the Vermont Energy Partnership (see it at www.vtep.org), our electricity rates increased five percent in 2012 from 2011, while the rest of New England (except one state – Rhode Island) saw their rates decrease. To make matters worse, the power we are using now to replace Vermont Yankee has led to an increase in fossil fuel emissions by Vermonters.
I believe this regrettable state of affairs has come to pass because of misguided energy policies that have led Vermont to aggressively pursue renewable power development and depend heavily on electricity from the New England “grid.” The grid is largely powered by fossil fuel generators, in particular natural gas, and has been the primary substitute for Vermont Yankee.
According to the Partnership’s study, Vermont’s grid power usage grew by one million megawatt-hours from 2011 to 2012 – about one-sixth of our total usage. That’s a huge jump in dependence on out-of-state power producers as well as carbon and other toxic emissions. An estimated three quarters of “grid” power is generated by fossil fuel plants. As a result, our carbon footprint, once among the smallest in the region when low-carbon Vermont Yankee provided one-third of our power, has grown. We have forfeited bragging rights among other “green” states in real, substantive terms.
Meanwhile, Vermont ratepayers are discovering that some renewables come at a high price – part of the non-negotiable bill they get in the mail every month. The cheapest renewable power – controversial “big wind” – cost utilities about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, roughly double the cost of nuclear and hydro. Vermont’s highly-touted “standard offer” solar projects cost a steady 30 cents per kilowatt-hour. While these projects appeal to energy investors looking for an attractive fixed return, it’s unfair to burden hard working consumers and businesses with these costs.
High-cost electricity lowers our state’s ability to remain competitive and threatens job creation. While others are paying less for electricity, we are paying more. Vermont, never a poster child for competitiveness, is slipping even further behind. We can only hope this weakness will be overlooked by manufacturing employers large and small, for whom energy costs loom large in their decision to operate here.
The VTEP study also shows that more than half of Vermont’s power is classified as renewable: hydro, biomass (woodchip), wind, solar, and methane. This is considerably higher than in most states, including those with power rates far lower than in Vermont. Renewable power may well be the wave of the energy future, but right now it burdens Vermont ratepayers and our competitive standing. We are poorer and, to use the swollen foot analogy, sorer.
The good news is we can turn things around before the situation gets any worse. In order to do so, our policy makers should first back off their zealous pursuit to close Vermont Yankee, which is costing millions in legal fees alone. Closing Vermont Yankee, a facility that has continually been found by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be extremely safe, would shrink the economy of Windham County, lead to the annual loss of millions of state tax dollars, and deprive New England of a large, low-cost, low-carbon power generator.
Vermont should also curtail extensive subsidies to inefficient renewable power operators. Such high-priced generators have an unfair advantage over those renewable power providers that have operated efficiently over the years. And, it is simply wrong to ask Vermonters to fund such projects in this austere time. The working poor and middle-class should not be supporting the wealthly and well-connected.
Former Vermont State Senator
West Barnet, VT