DANVILLE – Vermont can’t meet its 2012 goal for reducing its contribution to greenhouse gases, but may, with a great deal of effort, make its 2028 target. That was part of the message delivered to about 30 people who gathered at the Danville School on Thursday, October 6, to discuss the draft of a report on Vermont’s energy future.
Elizabeth Miller, head of the state’s Public Service Department, summarized the 500-page report before opening the floor for public comment.
Ms. Miller said the state hoped to lower its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent compared to 1990 levels by next year, but that goal won’t be met. She held out hope that it might be possible to meet the more stringent 2028 target of a 50 percent reduction from 1990 levels.
In her presentation, Ms. Miller showed a graph that plotted a path to the state’s 2050 goal of having 90 percent of its energy come from renewable sources. The drawing showed, for the first years of the project, a shallow curve directed toward increased renewables. As 2050 approaches, the line takes a sharp path upward.
Ms. Miller explained that new types of vehicles will need to be developed, and new systems to provide power for them will have to be put in place before quick progress toward the final goal can be made. Once the vehicles and systems are established, Ms. Miller predicted that progress will be much swifter.
The emphasis on transportation was due to the fact that a third of Vermont’s energy use is for transportation and almost all transportation currently runs on fossil fuels.
For Vermonters, transportation costs make up an average of 21 percent of a household budget.
In many cases, people spend more on getting around than they do on food, health care or education, Ms. Miller said.
Residential needs account for about 29 percent of the state’s energy usage, Ms. Miller said. The commercial and industrial sectors account for 37 percent, with transportation accounting for about 34 percent.
More than half the energy used in the first two categories comes from electricity, Ms. Miller said, and in Vermont about 48 percent of electrical power is from renewable sources, including the hydro projects in Quebec.
Ms. Miller also had charts showing that the cost of electricity, when adjusted for inflation, has held steady over time, as has the cost of biomass fuels. Other energy sources, though, have seen a significant price increase.
While the figures seem to suggest that generating more electricity and finding ways to convert from other fuels to electricity would be the least expensive course for Vermont, Ms. Miller said an even less expensive alternative is to become more efficient.
Vermont’s current efficiency program costs the equivalent of four cents a kilowatt hour, far below the cost of generated power, Ms. Miller said.
She said her department put together the new energy plan in cooperation with other state government departments and hopes to keep it current by revisiting it every three years.
The present version, which can be found at www.vtenergyplan.vermont.gov, is only a draft.
The Danville meeting was the last of five held around the state to gather comments on the plan, but Vermonters are welcome to offer their opinions by e-mail until November 4.
When the floor opened for comments several people offered their views on large scale wind projects. All were opposed.
Benjamin Luce, a professor of physics at Lyndon State College, said solar power would be a better choice for the state. He criticized the department’s plan for focusing only on Vermont and said a regional approach to energy would be more productive.
Wind in the Northeast, except for offshore projects, is a very limited resource, Mr. Luce said.
With its need for large quantities of steel and concrete, wind power projects have become less cost effective since 2000, he said. Over the same period, the cost of solar voltaic systems has dropped, Mr. Luce said.
He said the only really cost effective renewable energy sources are geothermal, offshore wind and solar power.
Bob Walker of Brownington asked how the Public Service Board is able to give utilities the right to begin construction on wind projects before the Vermont Supreme Court has decided on challenges to their permits. Mr. Walker questioned the state’s apparent stance against developing the state’s potential hydro power, and said he is worried about the influence of corporate cash on recent decisions on placing wind projects in Sheffield and Lowell.
“We’ve got lots of neighbors who hate each other over the wind towers,” Mr. Walker said.
He advocated buying more electricity from Hydro Quebec, saying, “Canada is still our best friend. There’s an awful lot of power up there.”
Adrian Owens teaches at Sterling College, but said he spoke only for himself. He said he liked the plan’s emphasis on efficiency and conservation. He also praised the focus on making use of waste heat from power generation to warm businesses and homes.
He said he understood why the report suggests a shift away from fuel taxes as the means to support the state’s roads, but suggested a hefty increase in those taxes might move people to reevaluate their choices.
European gas prices are never below eight dollars a gallon, Mr. Owen said. Those high prices have allowed European countries to put a huge amount of money into public transportation, he said.
He also thinks it’s a mistake to sacrifice the environment in order to produce power that can be labeled renewable. Speaking about Green Mountain Power’s efforts to make up for the loss of animal habitat in Lowell by conserving other parcels, Mr. Owen said statewide or multi-county planning is necessary rather than a site-by-site approach.
He suggested that state planning ought to look at sites with the best wind resources, but eliminate pristine habitats from consideration and concentrate instead on areas that already have seen some development.
Mr. Owen suggested that animal habitats be given a greater weight in decisions on where wind projects should be built. He also advocated paying everyone affected by a project and not just the host town and landowners. Spreading the money around might “mellow out” some of the disputes that have arisen over these projects, Mr. Owen said.
Economist Ann Ingerson, a Craftsbury resident, said one of the principle adages of her profession is that “there is no free lunch.” One thing she found missing from the plan was an examination of the negative consequences of renewable sources of energy.
Ms. Ingerson said she has spent time in northern Quebec and, in contrast to Mr. Walker’s statements, found that Hydro Quebec’s dams have had serious impacts on the region.
Another Craftsbury resident, Steve Wright, welcomed the detailed examination of Vermont’s energy future, but objected to the scant attention paid by the Public Service Board to the value of the environment when it makes decisions on whether large scale projects should be built.
“We must decide what our landscape is worth, and this plan is the place to start,” Mr. Wright said.
Maureen Hurley, who came to the hearing from Topsham, brought with her a do-it-yourself ethic. Ms. Hurley told of attaching a 400-foot-long coil of black plastic tubing to two used pieces of plywood, a device that soon after, with the help of the sun, was producing household hot water.
Burying a similar device in a pile of wood chips produced hot water for a year and a half, Ms. Hurley said. In addition to its energy yield, the pile also produced excellent mulch, she said.
Preconceived ideas ought to be discarded, said Nick Ecker-Racz of Glover. He suggested that power lines and even rail lines ought to be built in the median strips of interstate highways.
While solar panels might be costly at present, a state purchase of 100,000 units could bring down the price significantly, he said.
If biomass is to continue to be a critical piece of the state’s energy system, those who own land that’s in the current use program need to be sure that foresters are working in their interests and not in the interests of pulp dealers, Mr. Ecker-Racz said.
Barry Bernstein, a member of the Washington Electric Cooperative’s board of directors, said that utility companies may not always promote policies that are in their, or the state’s, best interests.
He pointed out that companies heavily favored separating the restructuring of the energy industry, a trend that ended when Enron collapsed. Had the state followed that path, Vermonters would have been “screwed,” Mr. Bernstein said.
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