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Renewable energy policy is an expensive illusion

The development of wind power along Vermont’s ridgelines has divided Vermonters in a way development issues do not normally split environmentalists. Is Green Mountain Power’s Kingdom Community Wind Project planned for Lowell Mountain really a needed investment in our local quest to confront climate change or will it unnecessarily despoil what is at the heart of what Vermonters cherish – our scenic ridgelines? Many of us have friends on either side of this passionate debate.

While bridging this divide presents certain challenges there is an important policy issue upon which those on both sides of this debate should find common ground. Unlike every other New England state and New York, Vermont’s renewable program sets a renewable energy goal, but in meeting that goal allows the state’s utilities to sell all of their renewable energy credits (RECs) to other states. What this means is that even though Vermonters through their utilities are subsidizing local projects, and in regards to ridge top wind facing the local environmental impacts, the renewable energy benefits are serving other states’ goals rather than Vermont’s. In fact, once RECs are sold, not only can Vermont not legally claim the environmental benefits, the accurate environmental accounting in New England for a power contract where the RECs have been sold is that the Vermont utility gets the emissions of the dirty residual power from the New England grid largely consisting of coal, oil, gas, and nuclear.

In practice what this means for projects like Kingdom Community Wind is that since both Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Coop have stated in filings to the Public Service Board that consistent with state energy policy they will sell the renewable energy credits for this project, no one should claim that this project is renewable energy for Vermont customers nor will it reduce the carbon footprint of Vermont’s utilities. If a utility claims they are providing renewable energy to their customers they would likely be in conflict with the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides if they do not keep the RECs for their customers since the renewable energy is sold to the entity that holds the RECs.

Our legislators and state government leaders should acknowledge that our state renewable energy policy (the Vermont SPEED program) is flawed and is not reducing Vermont’s carbon emissions and when our legislators return to Montpelier this winter they should enact a renewable portfolio standard similar to what approximately 30 other states have in place. Until then Vermont’s renewable energy goals, just like claims for large Vermont renewable energy projects, are an expensive illusion.

Kevin B. Jones of Chittenden is the Smart Grid Project leader for the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School.