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Vermont Senator Brock gives tough love speech to renewable energy industry crowd

Gubernatorial candidates Gov. Peter Shumlin and state Sen. Randy Brock couldn’t have more divergent views on renewable energy. Shumlin, a Democrat, is an avid supporter of government subsidies for wind, solar and other forms of green power, while Brock, the GOP challenger, believes the renewable industry should receive no special treatment.

Industry representatives greeted Shumlin with enthusiasm but gave Brock a cooler reception at the Renewable Energy Vermont Conference in Burlington on Tuesday.

Shumlin pledged that the state would continue to fund the Clean Energy Development Fund (CEDF), even in the face of state budget challenges. He said the state’s push for renewable energy is vital in the struggle against climate change. The governor also sees alternative power as an economic driver for Vermont.

“Anyone who says that the renewable transformation in Vermont is a job killer is not looking at the facts,” said Shumlin.

The governor defended energy policies like the standard offer, which fixes retail rates for renewable energy purchases, and net metering, which allows Vermonters to generate their own small-scale renewable power.

Shumlin wouldn’t say where funding for the CEDF would come from in light of the recent lawsuit filed by Entergy Corp., the owner of Vermont Yankee, the state’s only nuclear power plant. Entergy has refused to pay a new generating tax that would help support the program. The governor said the state is looking at raising wind power tax rates and is examining energy tax models in nearby states like Connecticut.

Brock doesn’t see renewable energy as a panacea for climate change and the state’s economic woes. He questions the value of Vermont’s renewable energy subsidies and programs and argues that they often unfairly burden poor ratepayers.

“I had an underlying question in my mind: Is it appropriate for government to pick industrial winners and losers in the renewable energy industry?” asked Brock.

He said the state’s subsidy program for solar and wind energy might not withstand a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

“Are we asking the taxpayer and the ratepayer to become investors in technology? What’s the ratepayer going to get in return? … Are they going to get any benefit? Folks weren’t able to answer that question, at least to my satisfaction,” said Brock.

Brock suggested that the renewable energy industry avail itself of existing grants and subsidies, through the Vermont Employment Growth Incentives program and the Vermont Economic Development Authority, rather than rely on renewable energy-specific subsidies.

Brock concluded his speech by challenging members of the industry to prove that they could be successful in a competitive free market environment. He maintained that state government could help, but chiefly through programs which remained “fully transparent to taxpayers.”

While the audience applauded and laughed through Shumlin’s meandering speech, Brock’s was met with a less convivial response. He joked that he’d been advised to wear a Kevlar vest to the conference.

At one point Shumlin cracked that he could only help the industry if elected governor: “If not,” said Shumlin, “you guys might be out of luck.” To which talk moderator and Renewable Energy Vermont executive director Gabrielle Stebbins replied, “Agreed.”

After the forum, Stebbins praised Shumlin’s commitment to the Clean Energy Development Fund, which has funded more than 2,500 renewable installations statewide, mostly for small businesses. She described it as “a great return on investment.”

Stebbins disagreed with Brock’s assessment of the value of the standard offer program and the Clean Energy Development Fund. At a press conference the day before, Brock said he’d consider eliminating the CEDF.

At that press conference, Brock also criticized certain interactions between the state and renewable industry companies as examples of “crony capitalism,” a charge to which Shumlin responded on Tuesday by arguing that Vermont “has been very balanced in ensuring that we have cheap affordable power, and the right incentives in place,” and “that to turn back the clock … will be a jobs killer.”