Green Mountain Power plans to end outages by 2030. How realistic is that?
This month, Green Mountain Power shared a massive announcement that made the energy sector take notice. The Vermont utility says it has a plan to end power outages for its customers by 2030.
Most outages come from local distribution line problems like a wind storm knocking down a tree limb that then falls on a transmission line bringing power from a substation into a home or business.
Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke with Mari McClure, Green Mountain Power's president and CEO, to learn more about their plan. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity. Jenn began by asking Mari how they plan to make outages a thing of the past.
Mari McClure: What we're proposing here is a phased, comprehensive approach. The first phase is to underground our distribution lines that are in particularly very, very rural parts of the state. These are lines that are serving, you know, a few customers, maybe a mile or two long, we would look to underground those. And then secondly, the main feeder lines — those are the lines that come out of substations across Vermont and they go into towns and communities all over the state in both rural and urban parts of the state — we would look in central and southern Vermont and put very strong insulated lines on those main feeders. And now that will protect against outages caused by trees and branches, which is in fact, you know, most of the outages we see. The third three-pronged approach is energy storage for all Vermonters. We would look to get energy storage on those last-mile customers who are really far out. The good news on storage is, not only does it provide resilience for the customers and the communities in which we have it, but it also saves costs for everyone. We can use that stored energy when the grid isn't down to save costs for all Vermonters.
Jenn Jarecki: Sticking with energy storage, Mari, we're talking about backup batteries, right? Will you say more on those?
Yes, generally speaking, when we say energy storage, we're talking about batteries. The batteries, though can take different shapes. So you can have the residential storage that someone might have in their home. We've had those for eight, nine years now in Vermont, energy storage could also be in the form of the technologies we're seeing rolling out in transportation. Now the cost of that technology right now for most Vermonters is out of reach, but we do believe that will come down as time goes on. And more and more folks are going to have resiliency sitting in their driveways that we would be able to connect to their homes for resiliency and connect to the grid saving costs for everyone.
How will these energy storage options work when the power from the grid is out for more than, let's say, 48 hours?
My truck, which is a 131 kilowatt hour-sized battery, it's about 10 or so Powerwalls — if you've heard of the Tesla Powerwall. My F150 Lightning is the equivalent of 10 of those power walls. So, I could essentially go a full five days at my home while the grid was being fixed. And we really see a world where anywhere from three to five days, Vermonters could stay powered up with energy storage in their homes and communities.
The good news on storage is, not only does it provide resilience for the customers and the communities in which we have it, but it also saves costs for everyone. We can use that stored energy when the grid isn't down to save costs for all Vermonters.Mari McClure
The batteries that you're talking about, Mari, will GMP own them or lease them from a company like Tesla? You mentioned the Powerwall backup battery. And in that instance, if leasing what does it mean for repair to these batteries?
Our current program is a lease or bring your own, hook it up, and you know, we provide the expertise to help them that connect it to the grid, and also have it be resiliency for your home. This initiative contemplates that as a part of our service to Vermonters and to our customers, we would provide those batteries just like we provide a meter. Just like we have substations, just like we have underground lines or overhead lines, a part of how we lower costs for everyone a part of how we bring our grid to the technological future that we're living in now, we see that it's our role to be providing these to our customers over time. And of course, this is all subject to approval. This is a filing we made this is our action plan for how to look the weather right in its face and do something about it. As we stated, times are calling for bold, aggressive action. And that's what we think this plan does. And we think we have the hearts and minds in partnership with our customers to get it done.
What kind of threat does climate change pose in terms of reliable energy with extreme weather events becoming more and more common?
It's the biggest threat to the grid. This is the challenge of our lifetime. No doubt we're living in the middle of it. We have challenges from climate change, and we see it here as we provide electricity service all across the state. We've had six major storms this past year, that's the most that we've ever had. And it's not even just one year. If you look out across the last five to 10 years, we've had our worst storms we've ever had. You know, we've got to look at this differently. And that's what this plan is. This is us saying, hey, Vermont, not only do we see what's going on out there, we are Vermonters. I lived it, I had my power out. All of the folks here have had that same experience and we really think it's not only our responsibility, but it's we live here too and we want to see Vermont be the most resilient state in the country.
We thought it would be helpful to get an outside perspective on this initiative, so Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki sat down with Dennis Wamsted, an Energy Analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, to learn more about Green Mountain Power's plan. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: Okay, Dennis, how big a deal is Green Mountain Power's announcement?
Dennis Wamsted: Green Mountain Power's announcement is a very big deal. They have been at the forefront of a transition to a more resilient, more customer-focused electricity distribution company for a number of years. I first wrote about their battery storage and solar projects back in 2021, when they were still just coming out of the pilot phase. But the project, the approach is just a wonderful idea. It's a win for all the customers at Green Mountain Power. I mean, every ratepayer in Vermont is going to benefit from this particular system.
Recently, I spoke with GMP president and CEO Mari McClure. And GMP says the road to zero outages is paved with their three-part plan. So, stronger supportive powerlines above ground, burying a lot more lines underground, and providing the most remote customers with backup batteries. To your knowledge, Dennis, are there any other utilities in the country taking similar steps?
There are other utilities facing exactly these same kinds of problems. Especially the remote customer where you have one or 50, or a small number of customers served by one main transmission line. And so, if there is a storm or a, you know, an outage on that line, you have a lot of unhappy customers, and there's only one way to fix it. However, if you go the route that Green Mountain Power is looking at now — and some other utilities in California that I'm aware of have been doing similar things — where you go this route and install battery storage, you have allowed the customers to remain online, not on 100%. They can't run every appliance in their house for 24 hours, but they can keep the basics online and they won't lose, you know, the food and their refrigerator, while the utility makes the needed repairs to get the transmission system back into operation. So, I mean, this is an issue for a lot of utilities around the country, Green Mountain Power has been at the forefront of thinking about how to handle this issue. I don't usually credit utilities for a lot of things they do, and I think Green Mountain Power deserves credit.
So, it seems that even the most technologically advanced backup battery will provide power for at most five days. But as I pointed out to McClure, this past winter found some Vermonters without power for around 14 days. So, how reliable are these backup batteries in the face of climate change-induced superstorms?
Well, that is a great question. The short answer is that they are 100% reliable for as much energy density as you want to put into a battery. They're the reliable part of the equation. Now, the problem here, of course, is you can always conjure up a potential storm that will, you know, devastate the whole infrastructure in Vermont. We're not going to be able to solve for that particular result if you will. I mean, I think we have to be honest about that. The system won't be able to protect us from every potential risk. The way I see this program at Green Mountain Power and other battery storage applications is it gives you a cover for a period of time that will account for most storms and most disruptions. And I think that is a very important improvement on where we are right now. There will be storms that will overwhelm this kind of program, but the program itself in my view is still very valuable because it gives you the cover for you know, 60 or 70 or 80% of the possible storms, maybe not that last 20%.
...there's always going to be that storm, or that series of incidences that we can't really predict that will cause an outage.Dennis Wamsted
Sticking with the batteries for just one more question. I also asked McClure about the fact that GMP won't own these batteries, but rather lease them and that often these companies require that only their technicians work on their products. So, GMP is relying on technology that it can't service. Does that pose issues for Vermonters relying on these backup batteries?
I don't believe so. The utility is your go-to entity and you interface with them, you deal with them, but they're not doing the maintenance on most of their gas turbines. The folks that sell them their gas turbines like Siemens, General Electric, Mitsubishi, or some of the major manufacturers, will be doing a lot of the maintenance and repair on those kinds of facilities. The fact that you're relying on outside expertise to, you know, maintain and repair the batteries to me is more or less a continuation of where we are already, currently in the electricity industry. That does not worry me going down the road.
Dennis, what role does Vermont play in GMP being a leading figure in the utility space? Does the state's small size and population allow them to be more creative when solving problems?
I think if the small size of the state has allowed them to be more creative, there might be just more of a willingness to think outside the box. The utility regulators in Vermont have been very willing to engage on this issue with Green Mountain Power over the years. In many regards, I mean, Green Mountain Power, presented their projects or has presented their projects well, and has defended them well and shown that they're going to be, you know, beneficial for all the customers. But the regulators at the end of the day, still have to approve it.
We hit on this a little bit. Dennis, you're an energy analyst. Calling this the "zero outages initiative" is pretty ambitious on its face. In your opinion, ultimately, how feasible is GMP's plan, and do you think it'll actually end outages for customers?
I am, as you said, an energy analyst, I'm also a realist, it is not going to eliminate outages. Those are a fact of life that we have to deal with and have to acknowledge. The utility clearly wants to sell this program, and they deserve, you know, the ability to do that. That can be their goal, that's a very laudable goal. You know, as you alluded to earlier, there's always going to be that storm, or that series of incidences that we can't really predict that will cause an outage. So, getting to zero, I don't think that's possible. Getting very close to zero, I do think that's possible.
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