The state’s renewable energy advocates and experts will gather in Burlington today to try to figure out how to encourage more projects and the businesses that build them.
The Renewable Energy Vermont Conference, at the Wyndham Hotel this year, has become a regular event among the leaders in the field.
That’s important because Vermont has emerged as a leader in the development of renewable energy businesses, experts and lawmakers said.
As it has in the past, the conference – now in its fifth year – will include talk on wind power projects in Vermont and strategies to slow global warming as the world approaches “peak oil,” that point from which petroleum production begins to drop.
But today’s one-day conference will also have a section on small-scale renewable projects including some often overlooked sources of power like the use of the earth’s steady temperature to heat and cool buildings and small scale hydro-electric projects.
Typically, the conference – expected to draw about 400 people – has attracted mainly people involved in the business, said Andrew Perchlik, director of Renewable Energy Vermont.
“There is such an outcry for information from the public and such an interest in renewable energy for people’s homes, we tried to incorporate that into the conference,” he said.
Lori Barg, co-founder of the new Vermont Community Hydro and a presenter at the conference, said small scale hydro-electric projects have not gotten as much attention as other types of renewable energy.
“We are like the forgotten stepchild,” she said. “When people think about hydro they too often think about Hydro-Quebec and flooding of vast areas. They don’t think about small scale.”
The state has roughly 1,000 dams now, between 150 and 200 of which could be used to make electricity, but are not yet developed to do so, Barg said. Those dams, many of which are unused, could generate 175 megawatts of what Barg calls “sustainable” hydro-electric project. At its peak power demand the state uses about 1,100 megawatts now.
“We kind of turned our backs to the rivers, but even before we turned our backs to them we abused them as a resource,” Barg said. Many other countries, including some in Europe, are far ahead of the United States in the development of such small-scale projects, she said.
A few of the existing dams in the state may be removed, but most are going to remain in place for environmental or other reasons. Many others will likely remain, providing fishing, boating flood control and other benefits, Barg, of Plainfield, said.
“There are many dams that are going to stay there for a long time,” she said. “If that water is going to be flowing over the dam you might as well find a way to share that resource.”
But there are some difficulties in developing such dams as power generators, one that lawmakers may be inspired to take on in part by today’s conference, Perchlik said. That problem is that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates electricity-producing dams, treats dams that are connected to the power grid essentially the same way, Perchlik said.
That can make it very expensive and time consuming to rebuild a small dam as an electricity-producing plant, Perchlik said. Perhaps Vermont, like Alaska, should establish some state control over such regulation to help get more small hydro-electric projects underway, he said.
An expansion of net-metering, on which state regulators are working, may help get hydro and other renewable projects under way as well, he said.
Net-metering is the process through which a homeowner can relatively easily and cheaply connect his or her home solar or wind project to the power grid. They can then sell excess power to their utility, essentially using the grid instead of a battery array.
If regulators include group projects and make other changes to the law, towns and other groups of people may find it easier to build hydro-electric generating plants.
The renewable energy trade group has seen its membership grow and the business done by those members expand, Perchlik said.
“The industry as a sector is growing,” he said.
Although there are some Vermont projects, “the companies that are growing the fastest are tapping into the international or national market,” he said.
But potential changes to laws regulating the industry could also encourage more in-state projects and the development of Vermont’s renewable energy businesses, Perchlik said. And that is what today’s meeting is for.
“The conference has always been a wonderful collection of all the people who have been involved in the renewable energy field, both from the policy makers and the business end to consumers, who are there to see what is new in the field,” said Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is active in debating renewable energy legislation.
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