Tag Archives: solar energy

The case for wind

Most of Vermont’s media coverage of wind energy tells a David-and-Goliath story: the plucky locals and underdog activists going up against a corporate developer and the state regulatory system.

The pro-wind case usually gets short shrift. But even when it gets equal time, it’s almost always in response to anti-wind arguments. Rarely, if ever, is the positive case for wind given a fair hearing. As a result, there’s quite a bit of stuff about large-scale wind that most Vermonters don’t know. Here’s a list, with details to follow.

— For all our bluster about fossil fuels and gas pipelines, Vermont remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

— Wind is a necessary component of a renewable system. There is no way we can reach our “90 percent by 2050” goal without large-scale wind.

— Wind has huge economic benefits, including tax payments to local and state governments and a healthier trade balance.

— Large-scale wind cannot be replaced by residential  turbines. It just doesn’t work. And replacing large-scale wind with more solar would dramatically increase solar’s footprint on our landscape.

— Thanks to recent advances, large-scale wind no longer has to be sited on the highest mountaintops. Lower ridges and hills are now suitable sites.

— Siting on developed land and rooftops is good, but it’s only a fraction of what we need. There aren’t nearly enough developed sites and roofs in Vermont.

And now for the details.

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Acceptable taint

The good people of Vernon have taken it in the shorts since the closing of Vermont Yankee. Actually, they’ve just begun to take it in the shorts. VTDigger’s Son of the South Mike Faher:

Vernon, like all of Windham County, still is in the early phases of grappling with the economic blow of Vermont Yankee’s shutdown. The workforce has been cut roughly in half since the plant stopped producing power Dec. 29, and more job losses are scheduled for 2016.

But, Faher reports, relief may be on the way — in the form of a proposed natural gas-fired power plant. Such a facility would take advantage of the robust electrical infrastructure that used to carry VY’s power far and wide. It wouldn’t provide as many jobs as the old nuke, but it would do much to soften the blow.

It’s all very tentative at this point. Such a plant would need a supply of natural gas, and right now it isn’t anywhere near a pipeline. However, there is a proposed pipeline that would run through northern Massachusetts a mere seven miles away from Vernon. Short spur pipeline northward, and voila — plenty of gas for a power plant.

I’m sure there will be plenty of opposition from the enviro community — FRACKED GAS, OMG OMG — although perhaps not as vociferous as in the case of the Vermont Gas Company pipeline through the Champlain Valley. But it brings to mind an interesting thought exercise: Is there an acceptable level of fracked-gas taint?

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More obstructionism from anti-renewable lawmakers

The Northeast Kingdom has become a hotbed of anti-renewable sentiment. They think they’re overburdened by the renewable buildout in their neck of the woods — although they seem to be just fine with Bill Stenger’s ambitious development plans, which would include a dramatic expansion of the Jay Peak resort with the concomitant loss of open space and wildlife habitat.

The Kingdom’s nominally Democratic Senators, Bobby Starr and John Rodgers, have proposed a bill that would effectively hamstring development of solar energy projects. They have a cover story, as they always do; this isn’t about energy, it’s about farming!

… the bill would apply Act 250 standards to renewable energy developments proposed for high-quality farmland.

Starr told finance committee members that he wants to balance the need for renewable energy with the need to conserve farmland, and he said the proposal could encourage solar development on more appropriate locations, such as rooftops.

Right. Rooftops. Vermont has so many of those.

There are a few problems with this bill. In no particular order:

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A misleading report on RECs

Kevin Jones has a bug up his butt about one aspect of Vermont’s renewable energy program. The latest emission from the Vermont Law School professor’s policy shop is a report slamming the sale of Renewable Energy Credits. It deliberately overlooks the purpose and endgame of RECs, focusing largely on one immediate consequence:

“Vermont gets virtually none of its grid power from wind or solar sources, according to a report Vermont Law School students presented recently to the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Developers and utilities sell Vermont’s wind and solar power to other New England states, using what are known as renewable energy credits, or RECs. As a result, although Vermonters subsidize these forms of energy, utilities in other states actually benefit from them, the report found.

The topline there — “Vermont gets virtually none of its power from wind or solar” — is technically accurate but fundamentally misleading.

It’s true that Vermont doesn’t immediately get “credit” for our renewables. But in reality, we are producing significant amounts of carbon-neutral energy. That’s a good thing, even in the short run when the “credit” goes elsewhere; and in the long run, the RECs will retire and we will get the “credit” for cheap energy that helps combat global warming.

Jones’ influence on reports like this soil the reputation of VLS, and honestly, I don’t know why they let him get away with it. He is having a malign influence on our energy debate under the VLS imprimatur, and teaching his students some bad policy lessons.

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The VPR Poll: Everything You Know Is Wrong

Previously in this space, I looked at The VPR Poll’s reading of the race for governor. To encapsulate: Phil Scott has a huge early lead, Bruce Lisman’s in the crapper, and the two Democratic candidates are still trying to build identities with a largely uninvolved electorate.

The poll is an important snapshot of the race — really, our first since last fall, when the field was still a work in progress. But even more interesting are the issues results, which campaign builders ought to be examining closely. Because the message, as Firesign Theater once put it, is

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Well, maybe not everything, but a whole lot of things.

Issues that are supposed to be driving forces in 2016? Eh, the voters don’t much care.

Positions that could make or break a campaign? Over and over again, The People fail to conform to conventional wisdom.

Darn people!

Generally, the poll depicts a populace that’s more or less okay with how things are going and not especially engaged in politics. This, despite an ongoing barrage of doom-and-glooming by Republicans and certain interest groups.

Examples: A broad desire to stay the course or go even further on health care reform; widespread acceptance of large-scale renewables; strong endorsement of Vermont’s efforts on climate change; healthy support for the state’s school consolidation efforts; and huge majorities in favor of modest gun-control measures.

After the jump: the details.

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Who speaks for renewables?

The anti- wind and -solar crowd had a big to-do at the Statehouse yesterday, wearing construction-type green vests and lugging all kinds of props as they pressed their case for the current iteration of anti-renewables legislation: a ban on ridgeline wind and “local control” over siting decisions.

This post is not about their arguments. This post is about the absence of response from those who supposedly favor renewable energy.

With the exception of VPIRG, our environmental groups have been curiously silent. On paper, they support renewables as part of a broad-based effort to combat climate change. But in practice, they stay off the battleground.

Disclaimer: I don’t have pipelines into their war rooms, and I don’t know the details of their lobbying efforts. I’m judging based on what I can see. And what I see is an extremely active anti-renewable movement and a distressingly quiescent response.

I’m talking VNRC, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Sierra Club among others. They all pay lip service to renewables, but what do they actually do? Where is the pro-renewables gathering at the Statehouse?

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Will the VTGOP run an anti-renewables campaign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…

— 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie emerges from five years of political hermitage to reveal himself as a vocal anti-wind advocate. He insists his stance has nothing to do with a proposed wind farm near his house, ahem.

— Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the likely GOP gubernatorial candidate, doesn’t like ridgeline wind. He has described a road-to-Damascus moment when he was biking in rural Vermont, saw wind turbines on a ridgeline, and thought they looked ugly.

— Former Douglas Administration Ag Secretary Roger Allbee comes out of the weeds with an essay questioning whether wind and solar energy are in keeping with “Vermont’s environmental heritage,” which he describes in extremely rosy terms.

— Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, a potential candidate for Lieutenant Governor, has expressed (on this very site) his opposition to any more large-scale renewable projects in the Northeast Kingdom.

— Then you’ve got VTGOP Chair David Sunderland, who has said “there’s science on both sides” of the climate change issue.

Taken together, that’s quite a few signs that the Vermont Republican Party will be running an anti-renewable campaign in 2016. Well, they’ll dress it up as favoring local control and taking “sensible” action (meaning little or none) while providing plenty of lip service about climate change.

This is one of the potential negative effects of a Phil Scott governorship: he would be a major obstacle to further progress on renewables.

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They paved (a tiny bit of) paradise and put up solar panels

VTDigger’s Friday feed is infected with a bit of uncharacteristic headline fearmongering.

HIGH SPACE DEMANDS FOR VERMONT’S FUTURE SOLAR FARMS IF ENERGY STAYS LOCAL

The story concerns a presentation to the Legislature’s Solar Siting Task Force by Asa Hopkins of the Public Service Department. And by “HIGH SPACE DEMANDS,” it means Hopkins’ estimate of between 8,000 and 13,000 acres of solar panels statewide. That’s assuming we are to meet our legally-mandated goal of 90% renewable energy by the year 2050.

Wow. That sounds like a lot of land.

Is it?

Not really. The state of Vermont has almost 6,000,000 acres. A conscientious reporter (or editor) might have thought to include that fact.

So, if you take the upper end of the estimate, solar panels would cover two-tenths of one percent of Vermont. (A conscientious headline writer might have asked whether “HIGH SPACE DEMANDS” is an accurate characterization.)

You know what? I’d take that, if it means getting 90% of our energy from local, renewable sources.

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Vermont’s New Working Landscape

Vermonters have a long, sometimes storied, sometimes notorious, history of working on our land. In the latter category we have, among others, the sheep boom of the early 19th Century that left vast forests converted to pasture; the near-clearcutting of the entire state during the lumber (and wood construction) boom of the later 19th; the complete trashing of our waters by riverbank industries; and our modern-day violations of the Clean Water Act, caused in large part by agriculture and inadequate public water treatment.

Throughout it all, Vermont has been a working landscape with a tenuous, inconsistent relationship to the environment. Fortunately, we never found exploitable resources like coal or precious metals or oil. Also fortunately, the population has remained small enough that we’ve never been able to damage the environment beyond its incredible ability to regenerate.

But whether we were engaged in massive sheep farming, clearcut lumbering, industry, dairy farming, or shopping malls and subdivisions, the one constant is that we live in a “working landscape.” We have often celebrated that fact. And indeed, long-familiar aspects of the working landscape — even if they cause environmental degradation — are cherished parts of our way of life.

Myself, I’m looking forward to the next evolution of Vermont’s working landscape: the integration of renewable energy, the creation of a closer-to-home energy supply, the diminished dependence on fossil fuels and on massive “renewable” sources elsewhere, such as Seabrook Nuclear and the destructive hydro projects in northern Quebec.

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Senate Natural Resources: Addition by subtraction, at the very least

On Friday afternoon, the white smoke went up the chimney of the State Senate’s College of Cardinals — the three-man (yup, still no women in the club) Committee on Committees* who dole out the committee assignments.

*John Campbell, Phil Scott, Dick Mazza. 

The most closely-watched decision was over the chairmanship of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Former chair (ahhhhhh) Bob Hartwell chose not to run for re-election last year; his chosen successor is Addison Democrat Chris Bray.

Hartwell famously cast doubt on the science of climate change last spring in an interview with Seven Days’ Paul Heintz:

“To suggest that mankind is causing the whole climate to shift, that’s a big reach,” he added. “I don’t think anybody’s ever proved that.”

When Heintz pointed out that, in fact, it had been proven by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hartwell cast doubt on the IPCC’s credibility, accusing it of making “some pretty extreme statements” and claiming the scientific community is divided on the question, which is complete balderdash.

Compare that hot mess to Bray’s position, as reported by VTDigger’s John Herrick:

“Climate change is the largest challenge we face, not just as legislators but as a species,” he said. “There are some pretty discouraging predictions out there about what will happen, but we can’t afford the be paralyzed by that uncertainty.”

That’s better.

The other notable addition by subtraction on Natural Resources is the departure of human popgun Peter “The Formerly Slummin’ Solon” Galbraith, whose main contributions were strident opposition to wind power, a short temper, and frequent grandstanding. Good riddance. He’s effectively been replaced by Brian Campion, Democrat from Bennington, who scored 100% on the Vermont Conservation Voters’ 2013-14 environmental scorecard. 

The other three Natural Resources members were reappointed: Diane Snelling, Mark MacDonald, and John Rodgers. Snelling’s one of the better Republicans on environmental issues, MacDonald is reliable if uninspiring, and Rodgers is one of the worst Dems on the environment; he and fellow Kingdom Democrat Bobby Starr earned a pathetic 38% from the VCV, the lowest scores of any Senate Dem. But without Hartwell and Galbraith, he’ll be a lone voice on the committee.

Bray scored 100% on the VCV scorecard for the last biennium (Hartwell got a dismal 50%); his elevation to the chairmanship is getting positive markers from the environmental community. Paul Burns of VPIRG:

Chris is a very thoughtful, methodical legislator. He considers issues carefully and is receptive to hearing from all sides of an issue. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have his own ideas or vision. He cares a great deal about the environment and he not only believes in climate change, he wants to do something about it.

Those on-the-record views were largely echoed by a Statehouse vet who requested anonymity.

Chris has a strong streak of environmentalism. He is committed to the issues [his committee] will be involved in. He is deliberate, and likes to hear from all sides.

He won’t be a renegade; he’ll be a team player. He won’t cause problems [for Senate leadership]. He’s generally good on the issues; the environmental community should be happy with his appointment.

The enviros’ big worry was that Rodgers might snag the chair, which, given the CoC’s stacking of the 2013-14 committee with some of the worst possible Senators, wasn’t an unreasonable fear. So they’re relieved to get Bray instead. In an ideal world, their favorite would have been Prog/Dem David Zuckerman, but that would’ve been too much to expect from this particular CoC.

Chris Bray’s dedication to environmental issues, and his even temperament, will be tested in the new session. His committee will have to tackle the issues highlighted in Gov. Shumlin’s inaugural — a new renewable energy program for Vermont utilities, and the Lake Champlain cleanup.

His own district is touched by multiple hot-button environmental issues: Champlain, the Vermont Gas pipeline, and the siting approval process for solar arrays. The latter, because the Champlain Valley’s relatively flat landscape makes it desirable for solar. He’ll be torn on the pipeline and solar, since some very vocal advocates are on one side of those issues, and the local business community is on the other. And if he supports Gov. Shumlin’s package of Champlain initiatives, he’s likely to feel some blowback from farmers and developers his district.

He may also be torn between his own environmental beliefs and whatever’s rattling around in John Campbell’s brain these days. We shall wait and see.