Column: Vt. Energy Plan Is Wishful Thinking

Sunday, June 30, 2013

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, until they realize that what is called a “plan” isn’t an actual one; it’s more a collection of roughly sketched ideas, some good, some not so good. As one observer noted, the state energy plan is basically a collection of slogans, not a planning document.

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 percent 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 percent goal by switching to electric cars and heat pumps. That’s an outrageously big number, but it happens to coincide with two other rough calculations I’ve seen from renewable advocates. Charles McKenna, a local Sierra Club member, estimated the state would need 15,000 GWh in a Valley News op-ed. In a recent Green Energy Times, David Blittersdorf, a renewable developer, says that the 90 percent 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 would be only a small fraction of what would be needed for a 90 percent renewable goal.

Unfortunately for Vermont, if we really tried to make this much electricity with renewables, we would have to devote much of our land to energy generation. Renewable sources tend to be diffuse, not energy dense. 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.

It is safe to assume that 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 renewables. In the report, we will include solar power, Hydro-Quebec power and percentages of different renewables based on the German experience. However we refine our results, though, we are still talking about devoting much of Vermont’s land area to energy production.

Of course Vermont should develop renewables, but it should do so in pursuit of an achievable goal. For example, a goal of 20 percent electricity from new in-state renewables would be ambitious but within reach.

On the other hand, 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 because each advances the “plan.” That invites supporters of renewables to dismiss those who object to any of these projects as either opponents of good environmental policy or so-called NIMBYs — those who will try to stop any development in their proximity. A more achievable renewable goal would allow the state to consider projects more carefully in the context of a workable “plan” to achieve a practical goal.

People who are against overly extensive renewable development are not NIMBYs. They are not blithely ignoring environmental considerations or greedily focusing on financial factors. In fact, some renewable projects don’t offer enough benefit to justify their undesirable impacts. 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.

Of course we should 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. But even with conservation, there will be significant electricity demand, and we have to plan for it.

Our plan, however, 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 implications of the energy plan’s impact on land use.

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