Category Archives: Energy issues

Low-carbon sausage making

A resolution to put the Vermont Legislature on record as acknowledging the scientific fact of climate change stalled out this morning, amidst a thick procedural fog. All parties retreated to home base, in hopes of tweaking the language and moving the bill

"The round-Earth theory is being promoted by profit-hungry travel companies. It's four elephants, and turtles all the way down!"

“The round-Earth theory is being promoted by profit-hungry travel companies. It’s a flat earth carried by four elephants, and then turtles all the way down!”

The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee heard testimony from four experts plus John McClaughry. The latter cast plenty of aspersions and did his best to sprinkle a pinch of doubt into the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and that We Humans are contributing to it.

He did say at least one true thing: “I’m not a climate scientist.”

Aside from that, he slammed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a political body mired in scandal; mocked climate modeling as a simple matter of picking a convenient endpoint, referred to “the extreme storm business” as a tool of profit-hungry corporations*, implied that resolution sponsor Brian Campion was a tool of VPIRG, and characterized climate change claims as “exaggerated beyond the bounds of ethical practice.”

*Since when does John McClaughry not believe in profit???

Gee, John, don’t hold back. It’s bad for your blood pressure.

As for the experts, Dr. Gillian Galford of UVM’s Gund Institute reported that 97% of the scientific literature agrees that “climate change is happening and is due to human actions.” She walked through several charts that showed the facts of climate change from the global level (everywhere on the planet EXCEPT the northeastern U.S. had an unusually warm winter) to the local (Joe’s Pond ice-outs are happening later and later).

Perhaps the most interesting testimony came from Jody Prescott, retired U.S. Army Colonel and adjunct prof at UVM. He called climate change a “threat trend” of significant concern to the military for its potential impact on global stability, and said that if we fail to address climate change, it “reduces our chances for military success.”

Which might not float your boat, but it’s a valuable perspective to hear.

The other witnesses were environmental activist and UVM freshman Gina Fiorile, and the puppet master himself, Paul Burns of VPIRG.

After the hearing, the committee spent about 45 minutes tossing the resolution around like a rag doll. Most of the objections came from Sworn Enemy Of Wind Power John Rodgers and wind skeptic Diane Snelling.

Frankly, my sense is that both of them don’t want to vote “yes” on the bill, but don’t want to vote “no” either.

Snelling offered a vaguely-couched but insistent objection to a clause acknowledging that Vermont has fallen short of its carbon reduction goals. Which, of course, it has.

Well, to be precise, our carbon production increased during the Nineties and early Aughts and then declined. We’re now roughly where we were in 1990. Which is nice, but our statutory goal was a 25% reduction. Oh well, another statute ignored.

Rodgers can’t see beyond his concern with the siting process. He won’t support a resolution encouraging more action toward carbon reduction if it might mean additional ridgeline wind in his pristine Northeast Kingdom. (I haven’t heard him object to Bill Stenger’s massive brace of EB-5 projects, but there you go.)

Rodgers wants energy projects to be subject to Act 250 — and more. He wants them sited “as near the end-users as can be.” Gee, I wonder how he feels about the massive energy imports we make from Hydro Quebec, currently our primary source of “renewable” energy — and about the likelihood that more transmission lines will be built if we don’t develop our own renewable sources.

Anyway, I’m not arguing that John Rodgers makes sense. I’m just reporting that he won’t support a nonbinding resolution unless it includes language about siting reform and a reliance on “Vermont-scale projects” or something like that.

What struck me is that very few sensible Vermonters are willing to overtly deny climate change. Almost everyone (except John McClaughry) will acknowledge that it’s a problem we need to address — but then they throw obstacles in the way. We don’t want to increase costs, we don’t want to imperil any unspoiled spaces or view sheds. We can’t do anything that’s not in the vaguely-defined Vermont Way. We’re too small to make a difference. In the end, it boils down to this: they see other things as bigger priorities than climate change. Which means they’re not serious about climate change.

Back to the resolution. Committee chair Chris Bray finally decided to table it with the intention of refining the language in time for a committee vote tomorrow (Thursday).

Afterward, Campion expressed surprise that his resolution sparked so much opposition. “I thought it was a slam dunk, and it wasn’t,” he said. “I don’t know how much I’m willing to bend, to be honest with you. I’m okay with a few tweaks, but if it were to change the intent, forget it.” He’d rather have a 3-2 or 4-1 vote on something like his original resolution than a unanimous vote for a watered-down version.

But if we have to fight this hard for a simple nonbinding resolution, how in hell are we ever going to effectively address the onrushing threat of climate change? Or, as Campion put it:

What’s been interesting [about serving on Natural Resources] is how much I’ve learned that we as Vermonters are not doing.  We pat ourselves on the back, beause we do some amazing things. But when you look at not meeting our carbon reduction goals, you look at Lake Champlain and other bodies of water, we still have a lot to do. We have a lot to accomplish, and we’ve got to be very serious and focused on it. 

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The wind fizzle

There were some rumblings of possible excitement at today’s Democratic State Committee meeting. Word was, the anti-wind energy crowd would push the Committee to adopt a resolution opposing ridgeline wind. And, to add impetus to the push, they might attend the meeting in force.

Well, not so much. There was a resolution on the agenda, courtesy of the Caledonia County Democratic Committee. But attendance was moderate. No busloads from the shadow of Grandpa’s Knob. There was brief and polite discussion, after which the resolution was defeated on a 26-7 vote. Arguments against the resolution mostly cited procedural grounds, arguing that the State Committee is a party-organizing operation, not a place for policy debates and decisions.

And that was it. No confrontations, no immediate blowback; the meeting went on without incident. The after-meeting chatter was no more or less heated than usual.

The resolution was crafted to downplay its anti-wind origins, but its clear intent was to put the Democratic Party on record opposing ridgeline wind.

The Caledonia County Democratic Committee proposes the following resolution that the State Democratic Committee call on the Vermont Legislature and Governor Shumlin to: 

Reassess Vermont’s energy policy to include appropriate changes to Statute 248 to account for high-elevation industrial-scale power projects that are attentive and accountable on issues of environmental destruction, wildlife habitat and human health impacts.

Propose a transparent, sustainable energy policy that preserves the irreplaceable ecosystems of Vermont’s highest elevations.

Okay, well. Aside from the fact that the second paragraph isn’t really a coherent sentence, here’s the problem. The resolution’s purpose is to effectively ban ridgeline wind under the guise of permitting reform. The language is highly inflammatory, written from an extreme anti-wind viewpoint and accepting the anti-wind arguments as fact.

And there’s the rub. If you believe that wind turbines cause unique harm to human health, wildlife and ecosystems and that they somehow cause irreparable and permanent damage to mountaintops, then ridgeline wind is unacceptable.

The rest of us, of course, don’t agree. We see wind power as part of the solution to climate change, and we see the preponderance of scientific evidence as supporting wind energy. Anti-wind people, like anti-vaxxers, are so convinced of their rightness that they unquestioningly accept any evidence that seems to support them (no matter how thin, anecdotal, or unscientific), and instantly dismiss any evidence that undercuts their views.

That’s the faulty foundation of this resolution. I am relieved that it was quickly sent packing by the DSC, even if it used the convenient dodge of a process argument to do so. The Committee, I’m sure, was even more relieved to avoid a public confrontation with one of the party’s extreme elements.

Greshin redux: it gets worse

Earlier this week, State Rep. Adam Greshin spearheaded an effort to cut a planned funding increase for Efficiency Vermont. I noted the rather obvious conflict of interest: Greshin is co-owner of the Sugarbush ski resort, and higher EV funding would have meant higher utility rates.

Since then, two further developments. First, as multiple correspondents have pointed out, ski resorts got a massive handout from Efficiency Vermont last year:

A $5-million rebate program from Efficiency Vermont helped initiate a $15-million investment in high-efficiency snow guns at resorts around the state. The resorts say that the new snowmaking guns can create a lot more snow in less time, and can deliver piles of snow earlier in the season than the old-school snowguns.

The majority of resorts’ electricity use is in air compression for snowmaking. EV’s program was a smart way to target a significant energy sinkhole. But it took a lot of flack for a “giveaway” to a big business. Did that contribute to lawmakers’ willingness to give the agency a substantial trim? I can’t say, but it’s a fair inference.

Adam Greshin’s business got a huge boost from EV, and now that he’s gotten his benefit, he wants to minimize his outlay for the program. Isn’t that convenient?

Second development. In my previous post I asked if Campaign for Vermont would go after Rep. Greshin. After all, CFV issued a formal complaint last year about then-Democratic State Rep. Mike McCarthy’s alleged conflict of interest. All McCarthy did was vote for a measure that would have benefited his employer, SunCommon; Greshin led the charge for a bill that would dramatically cut his business expenses, which seems more egregious to me.

Initially, CFV director Cyrus Patten was on my side:

Well, the morning came, and…

Sorry, but that doesn’t hold water. By its own account, Sugarbush spends about $2 million a year on energy. That’s not exactly your typical ratepayer. Methinks the grizzled heads at CFV thought better of slamming Greshin, who’s not formally connected to CFV but as a business-friendly centrist, his political agenda matches theirs. Unlike, say, Mike McCarthy.

I’m sure Patten will write this off as more CFV-bashing by me, but I smell a double standard.

Look, I realize there’s a huge gray area when it comes to conflict of interest, especially in a state with a nonprofessional legislature. Most of these people have other jobs. You can’t ask Dr. George Till to recuse himself from anything to do with health care. You can’t ask Sen. Bill Doyle, a faculty member at Johnson State College, to abstain from higher eduction funding bills. You can’t ask Don Turner, fire chief of Milton, to not vote for public safety appropriations.

But Greshin’s case is different in two regards: (1) paying utility bills is a huge expense for his resort, so there’s a greater order of magnitude involved; and (2) he didn’t just vote on a bill — he championed the cause. If not for Adam Greshin, the Efficiency Vermont funding would have sailed through the House.

I think that’s a pretty clear case, and I believe the House Ethics Committee should look into it.

An obvious conflict of interest in the House

In January of last year, the supposedly nonpartisan Campaign for Vermont raised a stink about conflict of interest in the Vermont House. Specifically, it accused then-Rep. Mike McCarthy of same.

Then-CFV spokesflack Shawn Shouldice noted that McCarthy, an employee of SunCommon, had voted for a net-metering bill in the House… a bill that stood to benefit his employer. Shouldice accused McCarthy of breaking House rules by voting on the bill.

Fast forward to today, when the House approved a massive energy bill going under the name RESET. One provision was struck from the bill; it would have boosted funding for Efficiency Vermont. The charge to strike that provision was led by Independent Rep. Adam Greshin. All of this is chronicled very nicely by VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld. Except for one small fact:

Adam Greshin, looking suspiciously Photoshoppy.

Adam Greshin, looking suspiciously Photoshoppy.

Greshin is co-owner of the Sugarbush ski resort. Two more facts:

The ski industry is a voracious consumer of electricity.

Efficiency Vermont is funded by ratepayers, with rates approved by the Public Service Board.

Do I need to connect those dots?

The Efficiency Vermont cut would reduce utility rates; Greshin’s business would directly benefit. Not only did he vote for the measure, as in McCarthy’s case; he spearheaded it. He pushed strongly for it as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, where his arguments carried the day.

In the interest of nonpartisanship, I ask Campaign for Vermont to raise the same kind of stink about Greshin that they did about McCarthy. Also, is to too much to ask our media to report obvious connections when a lawmaker sponsors legislation that would benefit his/her own interests?

Who watches the watcher?

Under our system of government, the legislature enacts laws and the executive implements and enforces them. But what happens when a law targets the state itself, and the state fails to obey the law?

Don't mess with the Hoffer.

Don’t mess with the Hoffer.

This existential question arises from a new report from Auditor Doug Hoffer (who has an appropriately awesome, take-no-prisoners signature) brings us an example of a self-inflicted U.M. It involves Act 40, a bill that became law during Peter Shumlin’s first year in office. Act 40 was a nobly-intentioned piece of legislation that required each state entity to cut its energy consumption by five percent per year.

 

Great, no? The state leads the way on energy efficiency, providing an example for us all. Except that, according to Hoffer, Act 40 is nothing but an empty shell, its efficacy unknown and unknowable.

A few key findings:

— The state ” had limited information regarding whether, and the extent to which, its focus on reducing energy consumption resulted in reductions consistent with its goals.”

— The state government’s energy plan “failed to establish a systematic mechanism to evaluate progress toward reducing energy consumption.”

— Not all state agencies prepared energy-reduction plans required by the law.

— Key terms in the law were left unclear. For instance, Act 40 called for “right-sizing” state vehicles, but “right-sizing was not defined” and no criteria were established.

— Energy use in leased space was not included in evaluating Act 40 performance. In 2012, leased space accounted for 20% of building space managed by the Department of Buildings and General Services. There’s a big loophole.

And the kicker:

— “State government energy consumption has not been reported since 2011, and the results reported prior to 2011… contained data and formula errors and had methodological flaws…”

Put it all together, and we seem to have a clear picture of administrative failure that undermined a very good piece of legislation.

Buildings and General Services Commissioner Michael Obuchowski acknowledged many failings in his formal response to Hoffer’s audit. He pleaded, surprise surprise, poverty. He says that the state needs an energy management division to implement Act 40 but there’s no money for such an entity. In the meantime, he says, “BGS will continue to provide these services to the best of its ability.”

Judging by past performance, there seems to be an ability gap.

Obuchowski and Hoffer both say that some improvements are already underway. But why did it take an audit to make the state’s energy management system even attempt to follow the law?

If this was a private entity flouting the law, we’d be going after them guns a-blazing. But how do we hold the state to account for ignoring its own statute?

(And, once again, what does this say about the administrative competence of the Shumlin administration?)

Maybe now Kevin Jones can find himself a new hobby

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission gave a light wrist-slap to Green Mountain Power, telling GMP to “be more clear” in how it advertises renewable electricity while closing the books on a complaint of deceptive marketing.

The allegation had come from the usually reliable folks at the Vermont Law School, and in particular the unreliable Kevin Jones, who’s had a bee in his bonnet for years about Vermont’s SPEED program, which allows utilities to sell renewable energy credits out of state. Jones’ complaint is that selling RECs is basically a shell game, allowing Vermont utilities AND the out-of-state REC buyers to both claim they’re producing “green energy.”

Technically true, but with a couple of giant caveats.

SPEED was designed to encourage development of renewables at a time when they were not financially competitive. Vermont utilities could build renewables and recoup some of their costs through the sale of RECs, thus cushioning the blow to ratepayers. And it was designed from the beginning to be a temporary program; it will expire in 2017, and the legislature is crafting its replacement this year. SPEED is going away on schedule, having achieved its mission.

Jones also ignores the fact that, whether or not RECs were sold, their sale allowed us to adopt renewables more quickly than we could have otherwise. Real power was generated, and it reduced the overall need for fossil fuels.

The complaint also seems to rely on a misperception of electricity generation and consumption. Power enters the grid from all kinds of sources, is distributed through the grid, and consumed — all in real time. Unless you live off the grid, there’s no telling where your electricity comes from at any given moment. GMP can promote its commitment to renewables, but it cannot promise you that your power comes from the solar farm down the road, a hydroelectric dam in northern Quebec, a fossil fuel-burning plant in Massachusetts, or the big nukes at Seabrook. That’s true with our without SPEED.

I wrote about this a couple months ago and you can read more there, so I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say I’m glad to see the FTC close this case. And once the legislature passes the next iteration of power regulation, I wish Mr. Jones luck in finding a new binky.

 

Oh, by the way… the carbon tax? It’s dead.

(Note: I’ve updated this post to include more quotes, because the interview is now available online.)

You may have missed the news amid all the hugger-mugger over the inaugural protest, but the Legislature’s top advocate for a carbon tax has already thrown in the towel.

Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), chair of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was one of the headliners at last November’s news conference announcing a broad-based push for a carbon tax. “I’m going to push really hard on this,” he said.

Well, that was then. This is now.

There’s not gonna be [a carbon tax] this year. It’s not gonna be passed out of my committee or any other committee.

Klein said those words on January 8, Inauguration Day, in an interview on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show. I caught the interview when it aired, but it got lost in the Inaugural Shuffle. Sorry about that.

After Klein’s declaration, Johnson asked him why there would be no vote.

It will not pass because, one, the Speaker told me it won’t pass. [chuckle] And two, the way it came out to the public, with a real lack on our part of preparation, there was a pretty scary reaction to it. I accept that; that was a mistake.

That’s a reference to the immediate reaction to the November presser. I’m not sure how he would change the rollout; my own view is that it seemingly came out of nowhere. There wasn’t any build, just a big announcement. At the same time, I’m not sure if any other strategy would have made a difference; too many top Democrats simply don’t like the carbon tax. Well, put it this way: they don’t want Vermont to go it alone: they want a regional or national approach.

Klein concluded:

I’m certainly not going to ask the members of my committee to vote on something that may cause a lot of discomfort, especially if it’s not going to go anywhere.

Which is wise chairmanship. I can’t argue with it. I can’t even argue all that much with Shap Smith’s reputed diktat, because this is already shaping up to be one hell of a session without considering a tax on fossil fuels during home heating season.

It’s too bad, because with oil prices currently low, it’d be a great time to enact a carbon tax. After all, the price of gas is a buck and a half cheaper than it was nine months ago; as proposed in November, the carbon tax would add 45 cents to the price of a gallon of gas. And, lest we forget, 90% of the revenue would go into broad-based tax cuts and targeted rebates for low-income Vermonters.

Klein said his attention would turn toward “aggressive funding” of weatherization and other efficiency measures. Which would be great, except we’re in a budget situation that would seem to rule out “aggressive funding” of anything. If Klein’s committee passes a significant expansion of efficiency measures, we can expect to see it expire on the surgical table of House Ways and Means.

The carbon tax proposal was a carefully-crafted plan that would have minimized the pain on Vermonters, reflected the true cost of fossil fuels in their price, and made a huge dent in Vermont’s carbon footprint. I’m not surprised to see it fall in the face of unpleasant political realities; I’m just sad to see it happen so quickly. Not with a bang, but a whimper.