Despite EPA 'pass,' Vermont faces carbon reduction challenges
State officials celebrated Vermont getting a "pass" after the U.S. EPA announced June 2 its state-by-state plan to reduce power-related carbon emissions 30 percent nationwide by 2030. Lacking any full-time fossil-fuel powered electricity generating plants, it is not surprising that Vermont is exempt from the new rule. While this may seem like a victory for the Green Mountain State, our energy policy has actually left us "browner," more vulnerable to price increases from the new rule, and virtually powerless over how our electricity is generated.
A leading state environmental official remarked, in effect, that it now pays to be fossil-free. New York and the rest of New England were not so fortunate. The Empire State must reduce 44 percent of power plant fossil fuel emissions by 2030. Connecticut (29 percent) and Massachusetts (38 percent) must also submit carbon reduction plans by 2018 or potentially face financial penalties. Because Vermont relies on electricity from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and others, our prices and "greenness" will be at the mercy of how those states implement these new EPA requirements.
When the contracts for Vermont Yankee power expired in 2012, our utilities replaced its carbon-free generation with about a million megawatt-hours of "grid power" -- contracts and direct purchases of electricity from the New England transmission grid. More than half of this power comes from burning fossil fuels. This has substantially increased Vermont's power-related carbon emissions, while exporting the consequences to other states.
The EPA plan only penalizes states for producing fossil-fuel power on their own soil, so future prices for grid power will reflect the policies and solutions that other states must take to reduce the carbon emissions produced by our demand. If their homegrown utilities must pay more for non-compliance or the purchase of more expensive renewable power, they may choose to pass along the cost to us.
The EPA's four "building blocks" for a state-level carbon reduction plan include: coal heat rate improvements; re-dispatch of existing generation from coal plants to gas combined-cycle; increased renewable and new or retained "at risk" nuclear generation; and increased energy efficiency deployment.
Unfortunately, the idea that Vermont Yankee might continue generating carbon-free power after this year is water under the bridge. However if we are truly concerned with our environmental footprint, then Vermont must pay attention to how our imported power is generated, and conserved.
Vermont already excels in energy efficiency. Funded largely by millions from Vermont Yankee's contribution to the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, including $5 million from last year's plant closure settlement agreement, electricity conservation has outstripped the increase in consumer demand. Total renewable generation is still minimal despite heavy investment: Vermont's total solar and agricultural "cow power" each constitute less than one percent of our entire power load, state regulators stopped construction of a woodchip-burning power plant in Springfield, and wind generation expansion is challenged by vociferous local opposition and uncertainty about federal subsidies.
With energy demand rising, particularly as incentivized Vermonters increase their use of plug-in electric cars and electric heat pumps for their homes, energy efficiency can only go so far to reduce our carbon footprint and keep power prices in check. As the states that generate our electricity implement their plans for carbon reduction, Vermont will do well to monitor how these plans affect our bills and our carbon footprint. If neither is to our liking, the state will need to take back some of this control and find ways to generate enough low carbon power instate to meet our needs.
Guy Page is the communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership (www.vtep.org), a Montpelier-based partnership of about 90 individuals, businesses, labor organizations, regional development groups, and others committed to safe, clean, affordable and reliable electricity for Vermont. Vermont Yankee is a VTEP member.
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