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Column: Let’s Try Small-Scale Energy Generation

Thetford

Recent articles in the Valley News — Meredith Angwin’s commentary on Vermont Yankee’s court battle with Vermont over extending its operating license for 20 years, and the news story about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ opposition to a proposed three-year moratorium on new wind-power projects — remind us that the quest for a source of reliable, long-term, carbon-neutral electrical energy remains elusive.

Obviously, Sanders’ call not to impose a moratorium is controversial and has gotten the attention of many people. While I disagree with Sanders’ position, I don’t think we should come down too hard on him. His perspective is but one of many about the energy issue, and he is right that Vermont would send the wrong sort of message to other states if it halted the development of wind power. In fact, his statement should open the door to intensified discussion about the issue, something that is needed if we want to make good use of a possible moratorium.

It strikes me that some of the challenges we face with wind power mirror those experienced in Germany. The country has subsidized wind power for many years and is now installing a second generation of higher, more powerful, more visible turbines. Virtually every valley and ridgeline has an array of turbines. It almost looks like the dead trees from the Waldsterben in the 1960s have been replaced by wind mills. Germans don’t seem to mind the view. But now they find they haven’t made adequate adjustments to their grid to load all of the electricity they’re capable of producing. Wind turbines are standing idle offshore because the power cannot be sent to the user.

Again, a moratorium should give us some time to prevent similar developments in Vermont. I think there should be something like a state wind turbine zoning law, based on a careful evaluation of the environmental as well as visual carrying capacity across Vermont. For example, to preserve the wilderness aspect of the corridor around the Long Trail, we should decide how much visual intrusion we are prepared to tolerate. But that seems to be far away.

Perhaps it’s time to shift the discussion more toward the potential and practicality of small-scale energy production. I had a conversation with a friend in Germany who has solar collector panels on the roof of his house. He has a contract to feed the electricity he generates into the grid. But he expects to have enough battery storage capacity installed in his house to be energy-independent in two years.

Some people argue that installing solar collectors should not be subsidized because it helps people who already can afford that work in the first place. It has been suggested that we focus more on helping Vermonters retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient. I’ve shelled out over $8,000 to seal the basement and crawl space in my house and for the required performance testing. Another $6,000 may be needed to improve the attic insulation.

I’m wondering whether the $14,000 might be comparable to what I would have to pay for solar panels, storage capacity and other improvements to become independent of the electricity grid. We should not fool ourselves: Solar panels may be costly, but weatherization for older homes is not exactly for the poor, either. Subsidizing solar electricity generation for single homes is as worthy as spending public money to encourage energy-efficiency retrofitting.

Whom should we support — big business or the little guy, entrepreneur or homeowner? Maybe I’m dreaming, but when IBM and the computer industry started pushing (and developing) the personal computer back in the ’70s, they set in motion an avalanche of communication technology improvement that made PCs and other electronic equipment affordable to everybody. At the same time, big business earned more than its share.

A similar technology development should be possible in the energy field. Imagine: solar power panels on the roof of every house in Vermont, generating electricity right where it is used. Individual energy independence, and no need to revamp the electrical distribution grid! Another advantage: Smaller power generation units are more manageable and safer. That holds true for all forms of power.

We will still need reliable large-capacity power sources. But we sure can reduce reliance on and eventually the risk associated with running those plants.

Heinz Trebitz is a retired chemist who lives in Thetford. He can be reached at iht63@wavecomm.com.