Transcript: How much does Vermont's power grid depend on fossil fuels?
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Angela Evancie: Abagael Giles. It's strange; I feel like we've been working together for so long, and yet this is your first time coming onto Brave Little State to report an episode. Welcome.
Abagael Giles: Thank you. I'm really excited. I feel like it's been a long time coming.
Angela Evancie: And let's just get started. Can you tell us about today's question-asker?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, so today's question asker is named Remington Nevin.
Remington Nevin: Hello, I'm Remington Nevin. I'm from Quechee, Vermont.
Abagael Giles: He lives on the eastern side of the state. And he's retired.
Remington Nevin: I'm a physician. I'm a former Army doctor. And since I left the military, about 10 years ago, I've been assisting veterans with their disability benefits.
Abagael Giles: And he has this kind of really interesting business where he pays pretty close attention to where Vermont's electricity comes from. And, it involves Bitcoin.
Remington Nevin: So I help potential investors learn how to own Bitcoin in a manner that is environmentally more defensible, more sustainable.
Angela Evancie: But just to clarify at the outset, this is not an episode, thankfully, about cryptocurrency.
Abagael Giles: No, it's about something much more complicated if such a thing is possible. (laughs) And that's our regional power grid. So, yeah, as part of his work, Remington pays particular attention to Vermont's electric grid, particularly this question of how environmentally friendly it is, how renewable and honestly, he told me he's kind of confused.
Remington Nevin: Upon moving here, I was essentially informed that our power is mostly clean, nearly 100 percent carbon free, and then most recently, my utility Green Mountain Power, stated, they're 100 percent carbon free. And yet, my understanding is that Vermont's utilities still rely to some extent, on the New England grid. The New England grid is known around the country to be very dirty, to rely in large part on the burning of natural gas and even oil.
Abagael Giles: So basically, Remington is wondering how can Vermont be both this leader when it comes to carbon free electricity and having this super clean power, and dependent on this out-of-state power that is not so great, like, which is it?
Remington Nevin: I cannot make sense of these two competing facts.
Angela Evancie: So it sounds like there was another layer to Remingtons question, right, about the cost of our electricity?
Abagael Giles: Yeah. So he was looking around and noticing that a couple of Vermont utilities have asked state regulators for rate increases, if basically, they can raise the costs that they charge their customers. And he was thinking, you know, given what we're hearing in the news about Russia's war in Ukraine, and how that's affecting natural gas prices, how can we be both carbon free and also seeing these rate increases?
Remington Nevin: I think the fact that electricity rates are rising made this question very relevant to a lot of your listeners. I presume that's why it was so popular. All right. So I have the question. This is what I asked, ‘as electricity rates rise with gas and oil costs, to what degree does Vermont's power grid depend on the burning of these fossil fuels?’
Angela Evancie: Well, Abagael, I know you've been reporting this episode out for the past couple of weeks, you've been working very hard. If you had to describe this topic with one adjective. What would it be?
Abagael Giles: Ooh. Well, there was one word that I heard over and over and over again.
(Multiple voices in an audio montage): It's such a complex… It’s complicated. It's very credibly complex. It is extremely complicated. It's stupid, it doesn't have to be that complicated.
(Brave Little State theme music)
Angela Evancie: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Angela Evancie. Here on the show we answer questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience – because we think our journalism is better when you’re a part of it. Today, climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles gives us an education in Vermont’s power grid.
Abagael Giles: You might think of it kind of like a big spider web, or maybe like a big gutter system.
Angela Evancie: So how much does Vermont rely on fossil fuels? And what are we doing to bring more renewable energy online?
Kevin Jones: If you look at the fine print, this brave little state isn't such a leader in the clean energy transition.
Angela Evancie: And later on, where technology and policy might take us in the future.
Annette Smith: And yeah, what's it going to cost ratepayers to actually do this transition?
Angela Evancie: By some counts electricity makes up just two percent of Vermont’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. But some say our electric use is poised to grow dramatically in the coming decades, with the adoption of things like electric vehicles and heat pumps. We have support from Vermont Public sustaining members. Welcome.
Angela Evancie: So whether or not you follow energy policy, you've probably heard or noticed that fuel prices and electric rates are going up. Abagael, you alluded to this at the top of the episode. And that premise was baked into Remington Nevin’s question.
Abagael Giles: Right. Remington was partly wondering why Vermont's rates are going up if we mostly rely on renewables. One of the people I talked to for this story was someone who's very committed to keeping their utility costs in check.
Todd Dennis: So I got a new roof just before Memorial Day of 2020. And then my solar came in, in early June, along with two power walls through the Green Mountain Power Program.
Abagael Giles: Todd Dennis reached out to us on Reddit when he heard we were working on this episode. He said that since he bought his house in 2018, his electric rates had gone up 14.63 percent. So Todd has a pretty good head for numbers and when he crunched the numbers he decided it made sense to install some solar at his house.
Todd Dennis: In my spreadsheet I've saved like $2,500 just based on how much electricity I've used since I've installed the system versus how much they billed me for. Wow.
Abagael Giles: Todd also had a very cute dog, which you can hear in the background of our tape. The other thing that was interesting talking to Todd was that he had some larger context on Vermont's energy costs.
Todd Dennis: I've seen a lot of people complain about electrical costs, more so from other states. I know people from New Hampshire and Massachusetts have posted like their costs have gone up like 40 percent or something crazy. Based on what I've read, it seems like Vermont has a little bit more stable electrical costs for consumers.
Abagael Giles: So this is largely true that Vermont's rates are actually rising much more slowly than other states, like Todd just said. And that's because of these long term contracts that our utilities sign with primarily hydro power and nuclear plants. And basically, this lets them largely lock in prices for 10, 20, even 30 years at a time.
TJ Poor: Yeah. So we're less vulnerable to volatility because of our ability to enter into those long-term contracts.
Abagael Giles: So someone who can explain this some more is a guy named TJ Poor.
TJ Poor: I'm trying to find in the Annual Energy Report here. Vermont's overall rates across sector average rates across sector… I think it’s in here… (fades down)
Abagael Giles: He's the director of planning for the Department of Public Service. We sat down in his office in Montpelier. And he actually showed me a chart that illustrates this.
TJ Poor: Yeah, it looks like page 20., figure six. It shows Vermont as the green line in this chart, you know, staying relatively stable, and all the other states have seen since the start of Russia's war on Ukraine, significant volatility and increases in their price. And that, you know, Vermont's rates are still going up. I don't want to minimize that. But they're not going up as much or with as extreme swings as other states.
Angela Evancie: I feel like that's interesting context, Abagael. And not something that I was aware of that Vermont's rate hikes are not so bad compared to other states. So is that because we really don’t rely very much on fossil fuels in our power grid?
Abagael Giles: So this is where things get complex.
Angela Evancie: Ah, that word. (laughs)
Abagael Giles: We're gonna hear it a lot. So real quick, there are kind of a couple of ways to look at electricity use. You can look at the electricity we use over a really long period, like a year at a time. That's what we're going to talk about with TJ here. But you can also look at the electricity that we use in real time, every moment of every day. And the distinction is that if you're wondering how much of the electricity that I'm consuming by turning on a light in my house comes from fossil fuels, the answer to that question can be really different depending on the weather, the time of day, and where you are in the state, in some cases. So generally speaking, you know, if it's really sunny and hot, say it's a summer day, you may be getting a good amount of your power from solar. But if it's like six o'clock, and you're making dinner for your kids, it's after work, maybe it's nighttime in the winter, some of that power, a good chunk of it is probably coming from natural gas at a power plant in southern New England. But what TJ is talking about here, in this pie chart, is that over the course of a year, Vermont gets about a quarter of our electricity — these are the actual electrons that utilities buy — from Hydro Quebec in Canada, and another 12 percent or so from other hydro resources.
TJ Poor: About 19 percent is nuclear contracts with the Seabrook power station in New Hampshire makes up most of that. Wind, solar and biomass are around eight to 10 percent each, and the remainder comes from the New England system mix.
Angela Evancie: I just want to repeat all that because numbers are very hard for the ear. So, TJ just said eight to 10 percent each for wind, solar and biomass, about 19 percent nuclear and then, like, 35 percent hydropower. And the remainder from the New England system mix. Abagael, what does that mean — the New England system mix?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, so the New England region has an interconnected grid, there are no real borders, you might think of it kind of like a big spider web, or maybe like a big gutter system, with these poles and wires. And you know, all of the infrastructure that makes the grid, being that sort of underlying framework. And there are places where electrons and electricity are being pumped into that system, that gutter system, maybe it's from a natural gas power plant in southern New England, or maybe it's from a solar array on someone's house, or from a wind farm in Lowell. And those electrons, they move really, really fast, by the way, almost at the speed of light, but they follow the path of least resistance from where they're made to where they're needed.
Now, the other thing to know is those electrons, they don't carry tags. So once they're moving in the grid, they're kind of like this big electron soup, where the ones from burning fossil fuels get all jumbled up with the ones that come from solar or from hydropower or from wind. And because they follow the path of least resistance if you live near a renewable energy project, say a wind farm or solar and say the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, it's probably fair to say that you're using that clean electricity, but when it's not, you're using electrons from whatever else is being pumped into the grid.
Angela Evancie: Well, Abagael, I love these glorious mixed metaphors you just used to explain our grid. We've got a spiderweb, a gutter system. (laughs) So is the New England system mix – it sounds like that's something that flows into our grid.
Abagael Giles: Yeah, exactly. Angela. It's kind of just another input and other source of energy that's moving through that gutter system or spiderweb. Along with all of the hydropower and nuclear So the thing about that New England mix though, is that a lot of it comes from fossil fuels. Every year, about half of it comes from natural gas. So that's where you can kind of start to see fossil fuels creeping into Vermont's electric supply.
Angela Evancie: Well this makes me think back to our question-asker Remington, who was wondering how his utility, Green Mountain Power, can claim to be 100 percent carbon free. If this is how our power grid works, when we are pulling in fossil fuels when they’re needed… so, Abagael, can you help us understand this?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, Angela. This is where things get even more complicated – and it gets to the second much more nuanced answer to Remingtons question about how much our grid relies on fossil fuels. Because in addition to our actual, literal electrons on the grid, New England also has another much more abstracted way of tracking our energy portfolio. And it involves something called renewable energy credits, or RECs. So back in 2015, Vermont lawmakers were looking for a way to catalyze the development of renewable energy projects here in Vermont, and they came up with something called the Renewable Energy Standard.
Angela Evancie: So how does the renewable energy standard work?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, so each wind farm or each solar array in New England, basically, every megawatt hour of renewable electricity generation out there gets a certificate assigned to it. So those credits, they can be bought and sold. A renewable energy developer can then kind of make some money twice; they can make money off of selling the electrons that a renewable energy project generates. And then, they can also make money by selling the credits that come with it. And when they sell those credits, they're basically selling the right to say that you own renewable energy.
Angela Evancie: Well can you give us an example of what that looks like in Vermont when utilities work with RECs?
Abagael Giles: Yeah. So just like at the outset, I think it's really good to acknowledge that utilities didn't make these rules. They're just regulated by them. And all that is to say that in Vermont, when one of our utilities, like, for example, a Green Mountain Power, develops a new in-state renewable project, they generate renewable energy credits, along with this new input of renewable carbon free electricity into the grid. And that's all great. And then, instead of just holding on to those credits, and keeping them for themselves — this is called retiring them — they actually can earn a better return for their ratepayers by selling those credits out-of-state to another entity that buys them, maybe a utility in a state that also has a renewable energy standard that is trying to clean up its power supply to comply with its state laws. And so it creates this kind of, like, very complicated web of who gets to sort of own the right to say that a particular renewable energy project is actually renewable, and that they're responsible for that power.
Angela Evancie: Well Green Mountain Power has come up a few times, and of course they’re Vermont’s largest utility. Did you try to talk to them for this episode, Abagael?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, I did. Angela. I reached out to them. They didn't want to do a recorded interview for this story, in part because they felt that state regulators would be the best people to answer Remington’s question. And we did hear from a regulator, TJ Poor, earlier in the episode. But, they let me know that their power portfolio right now is 100 percent carbon free on an annual basis, and 78 percent renewable, and they're trying to grow the portion of their portfolio that comes from renewable power.
Angela Evancie: Well, going back to Vermont's electricity portfolio writ large… What does that pie chart of our electricity sources look like after you account for these renewable energy credits that we've been talking about? After RECs, what does it look like?
Abagael Giles: It's a great question, Angela. And the answer is quite a bit different. And if I were to like broad strokes, sort of summarize what you might see there. Basically, the proportion of our power that comes from Hydro Quebec, is about twice what it was before accounting for RECs. And what you also see is that some of the renewable energy that I think a lot of us are familiar with on our Vermont landscape, like, you know, most of the solar, actually all of the biomass from, say, McNeil in Burlington or Ryegate up in the Kingdom, that falls off that map completely. Even Kingdom Community Wind and our mountaintop, our ridgetop wind projects, they don't show up in our power supply anymore at all after RECs.
Angela Evancie: Well, what about fossil fuels? Where do they fit in?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, so according to one group that’s crunched the numbers, after RECs, fossil fuels account for about 6 percent of Vermont’s electricity.
Angela Evancie: OK. I mean, 6 percent does seem relatively minor.
Abagael Giles: Yeah, it doesn't sound that bad. And that's because Angela, honestly, it's not. According to the Energy Information Administration, Vermont's electricity portfolio is actually, like, the most renewable in the country.
Angela Evancie: I feel like there might be a ‘but’ coming here, Abageal? I feel like you’re winding up for some sort of caveat. (laughs)
Abagael Giles: Yes! There are some critiques of this system. And the person who summed them up best for me was Kevin Jones. He’s the director of the Institute for Energy and Environment at Vermont Law and Graduate School. I went to his office between classes to ask him about Remington’s question.
Kevin Jones: So depending on how you explore that question, you can have a very different answer.
Abagael Giles: So again, Kevin Jones is referencing RECs there. And he has kind of two critiques of Vermont’s renewable energy policy right now. One, he says that Vermont’s definition of ‘renewable’ is just too broad.
Kevin Jones: So there are things that we count as renewable energy, that, for example, the state of Massachusetts, or the state of New York, um, wouldn't count. And one of those controversies is over large-scale hydro.
Abagael Giles: Large-scale hydro and Vermont's relationship with Hydro Quebec in Canada is something that came up a lot in my reporting. Historically, Vermont has been the only state to allow large-scale hydro to be classified as renewable in New England. Though Massachusetts does have a newish policy on the books that may change that. And before we go further I should point out that there are a lot of benefits to that type of energy source. It’s consistent, on-demand power – like, basically the only other things we've got right now that do that in New England are fossil fuels and nuclear. Like, we’re talking any time of day, whenever you need it, sun's not shining, no problem, we got tons of Canadian hydropower. And, Angela, it’s affordable, and price stable, again with those long-term contracts that we mentioned.
So the issue that advocates like Kevin Jones have with large-scale hydro is the really outsized role it plays in Vermont’s renewable energy accounting, where our utilities are buying a lot of these relatively low-priced RECs from Hydro Quebec partly to keep rates low for their customers. And advocates say, look, the whole point of this policy is to move us off fossil fuels. But, by structuring so much of our portfolio around this large hydro-power, that is money that is not going to building new renewable electricity projects elsewhere in the New England region.
Kevin Jones: It's really an inexpensive way to appear that we're leaders in the clean energy transition, when in reality, our standards are much lower than surrounding New England states.
Abagael Giles: I think what Kevin is getting out there is that, Vermont allows utilities to basically kind of cancel out that fossil fuel use by purchasing credits from existing large-scale hydropower in Quebec, and that hydropower, we've been using that hydropower for a long time in Vermont. So he has some questions about whether or not Vermont's regulations and the way we let utilities trade these RECs is actually driving the development of new renewable generation — new solar, new wind — on the New England grid in the same way that other states' policies are driving that generation. And then again, Angela, some people will say that the renewable energy standard that allows utilities to do this, well, it's doing the job it was designed to do.
Tony Klein: And it was always meant to jumpstart the industry.
Abagael Giles: So this is Tony Klein. We had a conversation at his kitchen table in East Montpelier after his pickleball game. He is a former lawmaker and notably, he was the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, when Vermont's renewable energy standard was being developed.
Tony Klein: I take some responsibility for, you know, for what we allowed because we were trying to create incentives to grow this industry as fast as we can. We never had a long term vision that this was going to be in place forever.
Abagael Giles: And kind of two things that I think are important to understand about where Tony is coming from is, he says, you know, our grid is all interconnected. A new renewable generation project in Maine or New Hampshire, that's still offsetting fossil fuel input to New England's grid elsewhere, and ultimately, is making us all less dependent on those fuels in the long term. So from Tony's perspective, this question is sort of irrelevant.
Angela Evancie: The thinking being, as long as renewable energy projects are coming online, somewhere, that's good, even if you're not accessing them exactly where you live?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, totally Angela. And I think, too, the other piece that he is getting at here was that this policy, it was designed to jumpstart an industry that was nascent, like super new, really expensive, and also to bring business to Vermont. There were towns in Vermont that didn’t get electricity until 1960s. And so our history around these big switches in technology, it doesn't really bode well for us as a very rural, rugged state with not a lot of people. It's not a given that companies and industries will come here, because sometimes it's expensive for them to do it. And so part of what lawmakers were trying to do, according to Tony, is basically create an environment where solar developers would want to do business in Vermont, because they didn't want us to get left behind. And they knew that if we were going to start this transition, they were going to have to subsidize this change to make it work.
Angela Evancie: Coming up: What’s the next phase of our energy transition going to look like?
Tony Klein: Yes, we want to get our power from the cleanest sources possible, but we want them to be as cheap as possible, and we want our grid to be reliable enough to deliver 24/7, no matter what happens with the weather, and we're nowhere close to either one of those.
Angela Evancie: That’s right after this, on Brave Little State.
Abagael Giles: OK, so in the first half of this episode, we talked about Vermont's regulatory framework as it exists now with the buying and selling of these renewable energy credits, or RECs, that basically allow Vermont utilities to demonstrate on paper that their power is clean, even though we're all part of this New England grid that often relies on fossil fuels. And we talked to some people who pointed out that the regulations that are really driving that work, they were written a while ago. And now we're kind of at this second turning point in the clean energy transition, where the question is, what do we need to be able to have all of our electricity come from truly carbon-free resources? And is Vermont okay with what that might look like on our landscape? And there are kind of parallel stories about what could change or what is changing. There's the technology, and then there's the policy.
Angela Evancie: OK, technology and policy. Why don't we start with technology?
Abagael Giles: OK, so I went down to New Haven, and I went to this place called the VELCO substation. (walking underneath)
Kerrick Johnson: That’s called a berm – what helps keep the sound in and keeps the visual impacts out… (fades)
Abagael Giles: VELCO, for people who don't know, is Vermont's grid operator. And I met in New Haven, Kerrick Johnson, who is their chief information and innovation officer. He kind of gave me a tour of their facilities there. We looked at some big wires and kind of like knobs and some funky things that looked like they were out of, like, Star Trek. It's kind of noisy. (humming noise)
So I put Remingtons question to Kerrick. And basically, he said, right now, Vermont's grid is very dependent on fossil fuels. But he also said that could change soon with a couple of things that could be coming online in the next couple of years. What Kerrick told me is that as a grid operator, there are really three things they need for a fully decarbonized grid to work. One: data storage, we're going to need a lot more of it, and broadband as well. Two: battery storage, we're going to need places where we can stockpile electricity from renewables, the way that we currently do with liquid fossil fuels.
Kerrick Johnson: Storage is playing and will play a much bigger role going forward for long duration grid level storage… (fades down)
Abagael Giles: And three, we're going to need renewable resources that can be what's known as firm base-load power. These are resources that have the capacity to run all the time and are reliable and can be pulled out on demand.
Kerrick Johnson: Look, VELCO, we of all people want to accelerate and move through this, but we’re zealous about reliability.
Abagael Giles: And Kerrick says we’re going to need more transmission – lines and poles – to get things like offshore wind and more hydropower to Vermont. There's a ton of money for battery storage in the Inflation Reduction Act, which is really exciting. And Vermont utilities are already starting to invest in the sorts of battery storage that might, say, power part of a community through a power outage. But the next frontier is the sort of battery that is so big, it could store enough power to run part of the grid for say, a week-long cold snap in January, basically replacing the role that fossil fuels play now on New England's grid.
Kerrick Johnson: It's an incredibly dynamic space. But we're trying to get to a spot from the grid we have to where we want to be, it took like 120 years or so to get to where we are. And now we want to make the change happen in 10 to 15 years. Now, it's doable. It's doable. But part of that challenge is improving communication… (fades down).
Abagael Giles: Basically, like Kerrick was saying the future this, like the end game might even involve things like AI to manage, where our where our electricity comes from, and when.
Angela Evancie: Awesome. So what is VELCO doing to prepare for this future?
Abagael Giles: One thing that Kerrick showed me was this barn that houses a lot of their operational facilities. It's pretty nondescript looking from the outside, but they actually took federal regulators there earlier this fall to take a look at something in the basement.
Kerrick Johnson: This is the fiber strands that you see that not just existing data, but we’re preparing, which is why you see all these unused racks for future growth.
Abagael Giles: When we went down to the basement, what we found was this room with rows upon rows of these metal lockers, and in the metal lockers, there were these big black boxes with blinking lights that were data servers. And basically, Angela, what Kerrick told me is that this is the kind of physical infrastructure we're going to need built out at scale, to be able to run this future grid.
Kerrick Johnson: Signals from all, all different kinds of signals and stimuli.
Abagael Giles: So they're actually doing this work right now. There was a work crew in there when we were checking it out. And it's just kind of one example of how we might see our electrical infrastructure change in the coming decades.
Angela Evancie: Very exciting.
Abagael Giles: So, Angela, just to step back here, what Kerrick is kind of getting at. And what I think a lot of people we've talked to for this episode have alluded to is that there's really this kind of delicate balance here with the clean energy transition. How do you move fast enough to meet the demands of the climate crisis, and build resilience, but not so fast that ratepayers get unfairly or even honestly, catastrophically saddled with the cost of all these changes that have to happen?
Angela Evancie: Abagael, it sounds like you're starting to talk about policy.
Abagael Giles: Yes. (laughs)
Angela Evancie: Let's do it.
Abagael Giles: All right. Let's dive in. So if we step back and look at where all of our renewable and carbon based energy comes from in Vermont, we can see that as a state, we import more than half of our electricity. And some people are saying, We shouldn't be saddling other communities with the burden of hosting these projects. Now, it's also important to note, Angela, that no one here is saying that Vermont should or even could get all of its electricity from within our own borders, just that this balance has to shift. So there was kind of this big moment last year that I was covering in the legislature in our newsroom. Vermont passed its first ever environmental justice policy into law. We were actually behind a lot of other states in the country on this.
But that policy really requires that Vermont do a lot more to engage with and consult frontline communities. So those are the people who are experiencing the impacts of climate change first in Vermont when making decisions about Vermont's environment. And if you look nationwide, historically, it's been Indigenous people, people of color, and low income communities that have found themselves living next to electricity generation. In Vermont, there's a lot of work going on right now to collect data to try to understand what those communities might be here. But a 2021 study from UVM found in a survey, that Vermonters who are not white are seven times less likely to have their own solar panels, which, if you remember from our conversation with Todd Dennis, who we met earlier in the episode, that saves you a lot of money on your electric bill.
So long story short, as we move off of fossil fuels, a lot of people are saying we need to build a system that's more just than the old way of doing things. And since it's our regulations that drive this and kind of helped perpetuate those systems. Some people say it's time to change them. There's a coalition that formed this year, backed by 350 Vermont and some other prominent environmental groups in the state with some lawmakers in the mix.
(chatter before press conference)
A couple of weeks ago they held a press conference at the State House to talk about some of these issues.
Kesha Ram Hinsdale (during press conference): So it's my privilege to stand with Rev and to stand with these stakeholders to call on the state to increase our commitment to 100 percent renewable energy production and to make as much of it as possible within the state. (fades down)
Abagael Giles: So that was Senator Keisha Ram Hinsdale. She's a Democratic lawmaker from Chittenden. County, and she was one of the key players behind the environmental justice bill last year. And basically what this coalition is calling for is that they're saying Vermont should be aiming for 100 percent renewable power by 2030. That's more ambitious than what our current policies call for. And they want 30 percent of that power to come from new renewable generation within Vermont's borders by 2035.
Angela Evancie: Definitely more ambitious goals.
Abagael Giles: Yeah.
Angela Evancie: So Abagael, where are things headed in Montpelier at this point?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, so actually, that there are kind of two camps. The Scott administration is launching a public engagement process over the next two years to get some feedback from the public about what is and isn't working with our current renewable energy standard and regulations around electricity. There are public forums and meetings that are happening this winter through the spring that's going to be ongoing, so people can participate in that. And interestingly, for the first time ever, there are actually serious talks about whether, as part of that engagement process, Vermont should reach out to communities outside of our borders, in parts of Quebec, or in southern New England who have hosted the generation that we rely on now to ask them what they want to see.
But the Legislature, they want to move fast. And of course, you've got the environmental advocates and the renewable energy lobby.
Peter Sterling: The only thing that's going to save our planet is if we start asking ourselves, what are we doing with fossil fuels? Why are we burning these things that we know are destroying the place where we live? And not only the place where we live here in Vermont, but, like, everywhere?
Abagael Giles: Take Peter Sterling, he's the Executive Director of Renewable Energy Vermont. They're a trade group that represents mostly renewable developers, and he's someone who wants to move quickly.
Peter Sterling: In a year, we could pass a bill and have it go into effect that would tell all Vermont utilities to get 100 percent renewable energy, that is a very efficient way for Vermont, to do its part to stop climate change and get carbon out of the atmosphere.
Abagael Giles: Now, it's important to note renewable developers whom Peter Sterling represents, of course, stand to benefit financially tremendously if Vermont decides to require that our utilities purchase more power from in-state generation of renewables. So we can just get that out in the open. But Peter is also someone who really emphasizes the external cost when Vermont pulls from the regional energy mix for some of its electricity.
Peter Sterling: Very often, when we need power — so when it's super cold, or super hot, and we need emergency power — it comes from a natural gas plant that's located in a low-income community, or in a largely minority community, either in Massachusetts or Connecticut. And that's wrong. Vermonters should not be asking those people to live near a natural gas plant just because we want power.
Abagael Giles: And then I talked to someone who felt like a lot of Vermont communities have been excluded, or at least not given the same say as industry when it comes to conversations about energy projects here within our borders.
Annette Smith: We need to have a totally new approach to strategic energy siting. One that does not put the developers in the driver's seat, but one that is a collaborative process that communities, the utilities, the developers work together to identify the places where the energy is actually needed.
Abagael Giles: This is Annette Smith. She is the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. Annette is someone who has advocated for a long time for more transparency and clarity about how Vermont approves siting for renewable energy projects. From her perspective, it's just too hard right now for the average person to be a part of that decision making.
Annette Smith: And yeah, what's it going to cost ratepayers to actually do this transition? I think that's a conversation that Vermonters have to have and should be a part of. The idea that we're going to do it with wind and solar and batteries, requires an assessment of what's that going to cost and who's going to pay for it?
Abagael Giles: So I think here, it's worth noting how we subsidize this transition, it has potentially some big ramifications for ratepayers. And who pays for this cleaner power, which we should also note, most of the data shows will be much less price volatile than what fossil fuels cost now, once it’s built. But, as we've talked about, there's a lot that's going to have to change in our environment to get to this carbon-free future.
Angela Evancie: Well, I imagine that a lot of listeners right now might be feeling kind of overwhelmed by the magnitude of this challenge and the complexity, right, there's that word again, of moving to a carbon-free future. So, Abagael, what can we all do on an individual level?
Abagael Giles: Yeah, I think Peter Sterling of Renewable Energy Vermont can give some good guidance on this. He says, first off, and I don't think anyone will be surprised to hear this:
Peter Sterling: I mean, the first thing that we all can do as Vermonters is reduce the amount of energy we use. I mean, that would be the best-case scenario, is we don't consume as much electricity. There are no perfect choices for energy anywhere.
Abagael Giles: It's also one place where Vermont is kind of a leader right now, we are actually the first state in the country to have an efficiency utility. That's Efficiency Vermont. But a lot of the data shows with the help of technology and new incentives, utilities could help customers do even more on this.
Angela Evancie: So is there anything then that can happen on the community level on this front?
Abagael Giles: Yeah. So I think there are a couple of really interesting ideas here, Angela. First of all, you know, from the developer's perspective, they really feel like if Vermonters want to have cleaner electricity, we're going to need to change some of our attitudes towards development within our state.
Peter Sterling: While most Vermonters support using more renewable energy, very often, very good projects run into some local opposition from a small group of people, I call them NIMBY’s, not in my backyard people, and they don't want to look at a solar panel. So somehow making it easier to cite necessary projects that will help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is going to be really, really important. Changing our attitudes toward looking at renewable energy projects will be critical.
Abagael Giles: Now, when we think about citing renewable projects within small communities, it doesn't always have to be this contentious debate. There's actually a really interesting example, in Bristol, of a town in Vermont that decided not only did they want solar generation within their community, they wanted to own it themselves, and they sighted it in their landfill.
Richard Butz: We had no trouble in Bristol with people saying we shouldn't do it.
Abagael Giles: So here's Richard Butz. He spoke about that at this press conference.
Richard Butz: Our residents can walk down the hill behind the high school, and they can see where some of their power is being made. It's a very powerful thing, I think.
Abagael Giles: And it's really interesting, Angela, you know, a couple of the advocates that we spoke with earlier: Annette Smith, Kevin Jones. They're really hopeful and optimistic about this idea of community-owned renewable generation, which if you think about it is like, so different from our old fossil fuel system, and the relationships that small communities have historically had with electricity generation.
Angela Evancie: Well, perhaps the topic for a future episode of Brave Little State – but for today, Abagael, I just want to thank you for coming on the show and sharing so much knowledge with us. The level of reporting you have done on this topic, in the words of our intern Mae Nagusky, is truly off the grid. (laughs)
Abagael Giles: Thanks for having me, Angela. It was a blast.
Angela Evancie: Thanks so much for listening to the show. And thanks to Remington Nevin for the great question.
To find out how you can share your thoughts on Vermonts renewable energy policies with our state's department of public service, and to find a tool that shows you what energy source is powering your electricity right now, head to our website, bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there you can submit your own question about Vermont, sign up for the BLS newsletter and vote on which question you want us to tackle next. We’re on Instagram and Reddit @bravestatevt.
Abagael Giles reported this episode, and I produced it with lots of help from Mae Nagusky. Mix and sound design by Mae and me, with production and editing support from our BLS teammates Myra Flynn and Josh Crane. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Ben Storrow, John Dillon, Anne Margolis, Matt Kakley, Todd Dennis, Mara Hoplamazian, Miriam Wasser, Oliver Tully, Jared Duval, Peter Hirschfeld and Brittany Patterson.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public. We have support from our station’s sustaining members. If you liked what you heard today, head to bravelittlestate.org/donate – or just tell your friends to listen.
I’m Angela Evancie. We’ll be back soon with more people-powered Vermont journalism. Until then.