Category Archives: Energy

So Much Horse Hockey in Such a Small Paddock

Honestly, I wouldn’t expect our area Chambers of Commerce to do anything but support GlobalFoundries in its bid to operate its own utility, thus sidestepping the Global Warming Solutions Act and other state rules and regulations. The Chambers are on the side of business, after all, and any threat to GF’s presence in Essex Junction is a threat to the region’s economy as a whole — including the Chambers’ constituencies. But this toxic little opinion piece from the Vermont and Lake Champlain Chambers plus the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation is an exercise in desperation and deception.

The thesis, as stated in the headline above, is that GlobalFoundries “will help combat climate change.” Huh. So exempting GF from the GWSA will help us fight climate change? Do tell.

In order to prove this unlikely theory, Cioffi et al. proceed to put their thumbs on the scale at every opportunity, spinning out unlikely scenarios full of conditional clauses while offering no evidence whatsoever that the deal will be a blow against climate change.

Let’s run through the deceptions, shall we?

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The GlobalFoundries Deal Is Bad, But Maybe Not Quite Terrible

Had a polite conversation (well, it was testy at first) with someone in the Scott administration who’s involved in the talks with GlobalFoundries over its desire to create its own utility exempt from laws and regulations that apply to all other utilities. As a reminder, the Scott administration and GF have signed a Letter of Intent en route to a formal agreement that would allow GF to have its way.

I came away from the chat with a bit more perspective, but my fundamental belief remains: This is a case of government bowing to the demands of an employer that’s too big to deny.

I’m not naming the official because our chat was off the record, and also because this post reflects my own view of the situation and not theirs.

First, a significant correction. I wrote that the Global Warming Solutions Act set a greenhouse gas emission baseline of 1990 while the LOI uses 2005, when emissions were at their peak. In fact, the GWSA also uses 2005 as its baseline for the 2025 target. 1990 applies for other, later targets.

So in the LOI, GF is agreeing to abide by the 2025 emissions target in the Global Warming Solutions Act. But three things are still true: First, GF’s current emissions are only a tick higher than the 2025 target so the company won’t have to do much at all. Second, the letter is riddled with exceptions and exemptions that would allow GF to exceed the target. Third, the LOI would allow GF to exceed its target under a variety of circumstances.

But there is one line in the LOI that leaves the door open for further state action.

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That GlobalFoundries Deal is All Kinds of Terrible

Working on the Memorandum of Understanding (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

A few days ago, I wrote about GlobalFoundries’ bid to break away from Green Mountain Power and establish its own boutique utility. Well, it’s far worse than I thought. I’ve gotten a look at the Letter of Intent between GF and the Scott administration — no scoops, it’s a public document — and maaaaan, is it bad. Like, historically, unprecedentedly bad.

I won’t say the administration is acting as GF’s procurer, but I will say it’s told Vermont to put on a sequined microskirt and show the corporation a good time.

Really, I’m kinda shocked that there’s been no media coverage of this. It’s definitely newsworthy. Utility regulation is one of those boring, complicated matters chock full of legalese that tends to scare away reporters and editors. And readers, for that matter.

But compared to the usual thickets of legal and regulatory matters, this is an easy story to tell. It’s a story of a government bowing and scraping before a big business, sacrificing principle and sound policy in the process.

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Is GlobalFoundries Too Big To Deny?

They probably call this a campus”

It may not be “an offer you can’t refuse,” but GlobalFoundries has done its best to put state government over a barrel on electricity costs. Vermont’s largest private-sector employer wants to cut ties with Green Mountain Power and form its own utility. It would buy its power on the regional wholesale market.

If it gets its way, the utility would not be subject to Vermont’s renewable energy standards or a variety of other laws and regulations. This isn’t a little thing; GF accounts for 8% of Vermont’s electricity consumption. If GF gets its way, we’d have a harder time reaching our greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Unless, ha ha ha, it voluntarily complies. Ha.

The case was filed last spring before the Public Utilities Commission and got a flurry of media attention at the time. Since then, it has followed the PUC’s customarily meandering process with filing after memo after legal brief after rejoinder. But things are about to heat up. And there are any number of indications that the Scott administration is in the bag for the GF petition.

Which is no surprise, since underlying all of this is GF’s persistent, non-specific rumblings about competitiveness and costs and well, wouldn’t it be a shame if something happened to your big shiny employer?

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We Are Just Way Too F***in’ Polite Around Here

Painting by Marc Adornato. See note below.

When, in a previous post, I called on Seven Days to fill its vacant “Fair Game” position with a skilled reporter/observer from outside Vermont, I got a response via Twitter that essentially said that #vtpoli is too “insular” for an outsider to penetrate. (Can’t find the tweet now; apologies to the tweeter.) My response to that would be “Exactly!” Vermont’s politics are far too insular. That’s precisely why we need someone from elsewhere who hasn’t internalized all that insularity and/or has too many friends in the bubble. Someone with the perspective that allows them to see that the emperor has no clothes.

We’ve got a really good example of that insularity going on right now. Last week, the state Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling that wasn’t at all surprising, but that defied common sense. The three-member panel rejected a proposed solar farm in Manchester on esthetic grounds.

This, despite the fact that we’ve got to go all-out in our efforts to mitigate climate change, and that Vermont is doing nowhere near its share on the renewable front. Also despite these facts:

  • All the relevant local and regional bodies approved the project.
  • No one, aside from a handful of NIMBY neighbors, objected to it.
  • The developer went above and beyond the call of duty to minimize esthetic impact.
  • The PUC’s own “aesthetics consultant” said the array “would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.”

So it was a stupid decision that strikes a significant blow at renewable development in Vermont. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

The subject of this sermon is the almost complete silence from those who ought to be outraged by this ruling: the Vermont Democratic Party and The Usual Suspects in the environmental community. Where was the tsunami of protest?

The answer is, we’re way too polite and insular.

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The Best Indictment of the PSD/PUC Renewable Process Is Its Own Documentation

From the PSD Hearing Officer’s report on the Richville Road project

I’ve heard from several enewable energy developers that the Public Service Department and Public Utility Commission make it extremely difficult to site new energy projects in Vermont. The best evidence for this is a document from within the PSD itself. It shows a process that seems designed to stymie renewable energy development. Since climate change is no longer deniable, this is entirely backward and counterproductive.

The document is a Hearing Officer’s recommendation regarding a proposed 500 kW solar array that would be built by MHG Solar on Richville Road in Manchester Town. (There’s a good story about it in the Bennington Banner.) The Officer goes through page after page of project compliance with PUC standards… and then decides it shouldn’t be built, based solely on some remarkably flimsy esthetic considerations. This, despite the fact that an independent aesthetics consultant hired by the PSD found that the project would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.

The MHG proposal is a textbook example of how to site and design a solar installation. The plan is well thought-out and takes into account every possible objection, and yet the Officer is recommending denial.

The PUC has yet to make its decision. In fact, the commission has scheduled a site visit for this Friday. It may be the developer’s last opportunity to overcome the Hearing Officer’s report.

The Officer’s entire 40-page report (downloadable from the PSD’s website) reveals an apparent bias against renewable energy. If this is typical of the PSD/PUC work product, it’s clear that a thorough reform needs to take place.

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So, Why Doesn’t Climate Change Get Top Priority in Permitting New Energy Projects?

A lot of you probably know this already, but I just found out and frankly, I’m stupefied.

In the criteria for approving new energy projects, climate change is practically reduced to a footnote.

For those just joining us, here’s the process as I understand it. Let’s say a developer wants to build a ground-based solar array to produce clean energy. It applies to the Public Service Department for a “certificate of public good.” The PSD goes through a very complicated process to determine whether a CPG is in order. It reports to the Public Utility Commission, a three-member “quasi-judicial body” that decides to issue or deny the CPG.

In the process, the PSD and PUC consider numerous factors. And climate change merits nothing more than a kinda-sorta passing mention.

Can somebody explain that to me?

Because to my mind, there is no greater public good than mitigating climate change. Is that not patently obvious?

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The Public Utility Commission Needs an Overhaul

The Vermont Public Utility Commission is truly a curious beastie. If it didn’t exist and you were creating a regulatory body afresh, there is no way on God’s green earth that you’d follow the deeply flawed model of our Earth-1 PUC.

Or should I say “Bizarro Earth”?

The PUC is what they call a “quasi-judicial body.” What this means in practice is that it hides behind a judicial cloak when it’s convenient, and ignores judicial conventions when it’s not.

For those just tuning in, the PUC is a three-member panel whose members serve six-year terms. Candidates are nominated by the governor, vetted by a judicial nominating board and approved by the Senate. By state standards, they are handsomely compensated; PUC Chair Tony Roisman pulls down a tidy $160,763 per year, and the other two members get $107,182 apiece.

The commission is a hugely powerful body that, in the words of its homepage, “regulates the siting of electric and natural gas infrastructure and supervises the rates, quality of service, and overall financial management of Vermont’s public utilities: electric, gas, energy efficiency, telecommunications, cable television (terms of service only, not rates), water, and large wastewater companies.”

That’s, um, quite a lot.

But if you want any insight into its decision-making process, you’re shit out of luck. The commission conceals itself behind its cloak of quasi-judiciality. Its deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. Commissioners refuse to discuss their work because, ahem, they’re quasi-judges.

This makes their jobs easier, but it is decidedly not in the public interest.

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A Ridiculous Six-Year Crusade Ends With a Whimper

Something kind of remarkable happened last week, not that anybody in the media noticed. The Vermont Public Utility Commission dismissed an astonishingly picayune case after more than six years of kicking it around.

Case number 8585, which you’ll need to know if you want to look up the documents, pitted the Public Service Department against one David Blittersdorf, prominent renewable energy developer and bete noire of the Energy NIMBY crowd.

But the case wasn’t about a large-scale wind turbine or a field full of solar panels. Nope, it was over a meteorological tower that Blittersdorf built in 2010 on his own land in Irasburg.

The PSD opened its investigation in 2015, after local officials queried whether Blittersdorf had obtained PUC approval for the tower in the form of a certificate of public good.

The PSD took up the case, asserting that Blittersdorf violated the rules by failing to get a CPG. The concept of PUC authority over a structure completely unrelated to energy, utility operations or communications is, on its face, ridiculous. But the PSD pursued the case for six full years. Last week, finally, the PUC tossed the whole thing out.

The Case Summary, with its lengthy list of hearings, postponements, motions and delays, is like something out of Kafka. And what punishment was the PSD recommending?

A fine of $2,500.

Two thousand five hundred dollars.

I wonder how many billable hours were racked up, and how many taxpayer dollars were frittered away, over this clown show.

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The Big Power in Vermont Politics

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

As someone who’s covered #vtpoli for more than a decade, I am well aware that the usual stomping grounds of the political reporter (the Statehouse and the campaign trail) are the tip of the iceberg: The vast majority of the political world is underwater. If you interpret our politics in terms of that surface 10 percent, you’ll probably know what’s going on — but you won’t know how or why.

This isn’t a matter of shadowy figures in vape-filled rooms, or envelopes of cash handed out in the middle of the night. It’s simply a matter of who’s got the pull, how they get it, and which way they’re pulling.

There’s one looming figure on our political landscape with the clout and connections to pretty much always get what it wants. It’s got a wider and deeper web of influence than any other individual, party, or entity.

Maybe you’ve already guessed that I’m talking about Green Mountain Power. Now, Vermont’s biggest utility would be a force in state politics no matter what, but GMP has raised its political work to the level of fine art. It carefully curates a plausibly benevolent public image, which allows politicians of all stripes to take its side. It maintains a small army of influencers, including lobbyists, media figures, and former politicians and government officials. It’s no stretch to say that GMP is a force to be reckoned with on any issue that touches its interests; but when you lay it all out at once, it’s damn impressive.

One dimension of the GMP operation is a truly impressive list of lobbyists, as reported to the Secretary of State’s office. There are 13 names on that list, including former lawmakers and officeholders, TV anchors, and veteran presences of the Statehouse hallways and hearing rooms. That’s a lot of muscle.

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