MONTPELIER – Renewable energy development will be at the forefront in the next legislative session as a key lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would force utilities to keep wind, solar or hydroelectric power in their portfolios.
But the debate over renewable energy is already heating up this fall with a leading Vermont environmental group last week questioning the Shumlin administration’s commitment to development of renewable electricity.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group issued email blasts Friday critical of parts of the Shumlin administration’s draft comprehensive energy plan, an in-depth document that sets policy goals and has been in the works for months.
James Moore, the clean energy program director at VPIRG, said most of the Shumlin administration’s energy plan is laudable.
“Where the plan is lacking is on renewable electricity,” said Moore. “It’s not very ambitious at all, and the thing is, that’s the area where we have the most potential to do something now.”
Moore said the plan actually sets a goal that would put Vermont on a slower pace for renewable electricity development.
“On the electricity side we’re moving fast now, so why slow down?” said Moore.
The advocacy group based its criticism on part of the energy plan that says Vermont should consider a “renewable portfolio standard” that would require the state to be getting 75 percent of its electricity from renewable energy in 20 years, which the administration calls an aggressive but “achievable and responsible” target.
The 75 percent goal includes existing renewable sources like Hydro-Quebec, which currently provides about one-third of Vermont’s power, a percentage that will drop to about one-fourth as Vermont’s utilities transition to a new 26-year contract with the Canadian power company in 2015.
The problem, VPIRG says, is the goal is not actually aggressive.
VPIRG’s two emails last week differed greatly in tone. One was highly critical of the energy plan, and the other was labeled a “correction” and backed off the criticism, saying the renewable electricity part of the plan was “weak” but many parts of the plan were positive. Though the tone changed, the group’s position did not, Moore said.
Based on the pace of renewable energy growth in the last eight years, the Shumlin administration target puts Vermont on a slower annual pace than it’s on now, said Moore.
Elizabeth Miller, the commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said she wasn’t exactly sure how VPIRG calculated its renewable energy target but added that she thinks the result is inaccurate. In addition, looking at annual growth misses the mark, she said.
“I do not agree that looking at an annual average, which is not reflective of what actually comes online in any given year, is the best way to look at this, but regardless it does not appear to me that VPIRG’s calculations are reflective of the draft plan,” she said in an email.
“The energy plan is meant to set a policy vision and recommendation, and it clearly calls for increased progress in renewable electricity generation as well as total renewable energy usage,” Miller said.
The debate over the details of a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, won’t subside anytime soon. The Department of Public Service is now taking public comments on the comprehensive energy plan and is holding public hearings around the state until next week. The final draft of the plan is expected to be out in November.
The Public Service Board is scheduled to release its legislatively mandated study of a renewable portfolio standard on Oct. 1.
And Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat who is chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said Wednesday he plans to introduce legislation next year that would establish an RPS.
Klein said the details of his legislation are unclear because he is waiting for the Public Service Board to release its study. But the state needs to have the energy requirement to force utilities to think long-term and build the renewable energy infrastructure Vermont will need in the future, Klein argues.
“Unless we require our entities to do these things, they of course will take the most immediate path of least resistance that gets the greatest return for their investors,” said Klein.
Klein argues a new requirement wouldn’t be a huge departure from the state’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development, or SPEED, program. The program was established in 2005 to encourage utilities to sign long-term contracts with renewable energy sources, but it does not include a renewable energy requirement.
Establishing an RPS would address the criticism that Vermont utilities get to double-count their renewable energy. Under the current system, utilities can sell “renewable energy credits” to other states, and those states can then use the credits to count toward their own renewable portfolio standard. But Vermont utilities can also count the same renewable energy toward the SPEED goals.
The double counting has benefited utilities and ratepayers, because utilities used the revenue from renewable energy credits to reduce electric rates, said Klein.
The market for the credits is now weak, however, so Vermont would not lose out on much revenue if utilities could no longer sell them, said Klein. A renewable portfolio standard wouldn’t mean a large hike in rates, he said.
Robert Dostis, a spokesman for Green Mountain Power Co., said the renewable energy credit market could rebound, however, especially if federal tax credits for wind energy are allowed to expire at the end of 2012, which would slow wind development around the country.
“It’s a market,” Dostis said. “It goes up and down. Right now the market is suppressed, but that doesn’t mean that is what will happen moving forward.”
Dostis said the costs and benefits of a renewable portfolio standard in Vermont – the only New England state without one – will be determined by its details.
Klein says his renewable standard “is going to be a big one.”
“You have to build in a number that creates enough pressure that you get something out of it,” he said. “You can’t just do a renewable portfolio standard that recommends what’s existing, because we need to keep the pressure on.”
Public hearings on the energy plan are under way. They will be held tonight at Rutland High School, Monday at Colchester High School and Oct. 6 at Danville School, all from 7 to 9 p.m.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding