Analysis: Wind's role in Vermont's energy future
Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part news analysis on wind power in Vermont. Read the first part, here.
The appetite for building wind projects in Vermont has tapered off in recent years.
A combination of factors -- the end of federal stimulus money, uncertain reauthorization of federal incentives, difficulties in connecting to the grid, competition with solar and local opposition -- have shelved at least two projects and left three others lying dormant.
Policy changes make renewables more attractive
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who has long legislated for more renewable energy development, said lawmakers may consider new policies next session that will press utilities to find more renewable power.
A major policy change would be a tax on carbon, which proponents say is the most cost-effective way to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
But Klein warns that the policy must be crafted right the first time. Australia recently repealed laws requiring companies to pay for carbon emissions for economic reasons. That is why advocacy groups dedicated to enacting such policies in the U.S. say more of these programs must direct revenue back to residents to increase public support.
But another policy already discussed in the Legislature -- and enacted in 29 states and Washington, D.C. -- is a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Already adopted in New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts, an RPS would require utilities to purchase mandated amounts of renewable power.
"I think it's time to move to an RPS," said Klein, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Under such a policy, Klein said, utilities would likely be looking for more renewable power to add to their portfolio. And "the quickest and easiest way to get it is through wind," he said.
The Department of Public Service will begin studying the economic and environmental effects of moving to an RPS by December. How the RPS affects utilities would depend on how it was structured -- how much renewable power utilities would have to purchase and how these power supplies would count toward the mandate.
State power suppliers currently are encouraged to purchase 20 percent of their power from in-state renewables by 2017 under Vermont's SPEED program. The program was launched in 2005 to encourage the development of renewable power generation and will expire in 2017. Utilities have about 18 percent of their power coming from projects that count toward the goal, according to DPS.
Critics say the program allows utilities to sell renewable energy certificates for power generated in-state. When utilities sell these RECs, the power they sell to customers is not renewable but is instead market power that comes from a bucket that includes fossil fuels.
Proponents of the SPEED program say it encourages renewable generation to be built. And now, since the price point for renewable infrastructure is lower, utilities can consider building more renewable generation without needing to sell the RECs to subsidize the power costs.
At the federal level, some developers are waiting for the reauthorization of the production tax credit.
Harley Lee is founder and president of Endless Energy Corp., a Maine-based developer proposing up to eight 3-megawatt turbines on Little Equinox Mountain as part of the Manchester Community Wind Farm, which is currently "on hold."
"When the Federal Production tax credit expires -- as it has done something like nine times -- the wind industry sees a precipitous drop in activity. This drop is often on the order of 90 percent. Personally, I'd like to see all energy subsidies removed, but, absent that, wind should be given a subsidy that helps level the playing field," he said.
The federal tax credit for wind expired in 2013, but the U.S. Senate Finance Committee this year passed its renewal. The credit currently offers 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour for 10 years for wind projects built before 2015. It is designed to encourage investors to fund these high-capital generation projects
Is wind -- big or small -- right for Vermont?
Harnessing wind in Vermont is like "growing bananas" in the state, according to Mark Whitworth, executive director of Energize Vermont, a group opposing large-scale wind. It just does not make sense, he said.
Compared to other locations in the Northeast and the rest of the country, Vermont does not have as much wind to capture. The total capacity for wind in Vermont is about 3 gigawatts, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In Texas, the capacity is as high as 1,900 gigawatts. In the Northeast, New York has the greatest capacity at 26 gigawatts.
Ben Luce is a Lyndon State College professor of physics and natural science who is critical of Vermont's renewable energy program.
He said even by developing all available locations for wind in the Northeast - ridgelines, hills and shorelines - wind could only provide a "trivial amount" of power for the region.
And because wind generates the most electricity in mild and cold temperature seasons in Vermont, Luce said this power does not save electric customers money in the summer when electricity prices are highest because expensive fossil fuels are burned to meet high electricity demand to power air conditioning units.
But other say wind power is another source of energy that is available when others are not, like solar in the evening. Having a diverse fuel mix, proponents of wind say, is necessary if the state wants to achieve it renewable energy goals.
Others say wind is vital to achieving Vermont renewable energy goals because
David Hallquist is CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, which is a winter-peaking utility. He said solar does not generate enough electricity in the winter months, which is when wind blows the strongest.
"In the winter peak, you've got to have wind," he said.
Wind opponents point to alternatives -- like solar and energy efficiency -- that would impact Vermont's environment less.
Billy Coster is a senior planner and policy analyst for the Agency of Natural Resources. The agency reviews the environmental impacts of energy projects.
"All large-scale development impacts the environment one way or another," he said. High elevation ridgelines often connect wildlife habitat in large continuous blocks of forests. Fragmenting this habitat (by erecting turbines) can disrupt migration patterns for wildlife, he said.
And with many of the projects built in the past several years, he said more time is needed to truly understand what the impacts these project have on the environment.
There are also technical issues for advancing renewable energy development like wind. Before more wind comes to Vermont, the region must find a backup power source for when the wind is not blowing.
The region's grid operator, ISO New England, says if the Northeast builds more wind, it must also find more natural gas - on which the region is currently dependent - or other reliable sources of power.
Renewable energy advocates are undaunted.
As demand management becomes more advanced, grid operators and electricity consumers can time their energy consumption when it's needed and available. This includes using a smartphone to start your dishwasher when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
And renewable energy storage options are improving, said Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont. She cited electric cars as one example.
Finding the right fit
Wind opponents say they are not against renewable energy generation. Instead, they are opposed to the commercialized climate change solutions that cloud other viable alternatives.
Annette Smith, executive director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, says her group is trying to help communities adapt to the pressures of climate change in a "way that's going to help people not hurt them."
"For us to be vilified as being anti-renewable or anything is just ludicrous," she said. Instead, when it comes to renewable energy generation, she said "let's do it right."
There is one solution that all environmentalists agree on: to combat climate change -- using less energy.
The state's efficiency utility, Efficiency Vermont, has been recognized by the Obama administration as a model for confronting climate change by offering incentives to residents and businesses to install energy efficient home appliances and seal up their homes so they waste less heat.
But even so, the group has been lobbying in support of electric automobiles and heat pumps - both of which require more electricity. The state's thermal and transportation sectors are the leading source of Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions and proponents of the switch say moving away from gasoline and No. 2 heating oil would quickly reduce the state's carbon footprint.
Other solutions include putting solar panels on already disturbed areas - such as roofs and parking lots - or finding a way to store renewable energy for those times when nature is not providing.
For now, solar is dominating the renewable energy landscape in Vermont. And unlike solar -- which can ride on a federal tax credit for residential projects until 2017 -- similar incentives for large-scale wind remain intermittent and uncertain.
And until developers gain stronger support in new host communities, development of new wind projects in Vermont is likely to continue to crawl along.
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