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Energy study maps path to 90 percent renewables

MONTPELIER – Policymakers inside the Shumlin administration want Vermont to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. A new study aims to show how to make it happen.

The Department of Public Service Monday unveiled a progress report on the “Total Energy Study” that will, by sometime next summer, lay out a road map for supplying the state’s energy needs with solar, wind, hydropower and other renewable technologies.

The 38-page document, according to one of its authors, doesn’t yet have all the answers. But Asa Hopkins, director of energy policy and planning, said the state is beginning to winnow the options.

Hopkins said the conversation about how to get to 90 percent renewables, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050 – another state goal – has until now largely been “without a frame or structure.”

“Now we’ve put a structure on it, and now we’re narrowing,” Hopkins said. “We’re going to do a quantitative analysis of, we think, three specific scenarios over the spring … So we’ll be able to, in a much more concrete way, say this is better than that, and why.”

The results of that quantitative analysis, to be conducted by Dunsky Energy Consulting, a firm based in Montreal, will be the subject of the final draft of the Total Energy Study next year. A draft report of the TES issued Monday offers an early glimpse at the scenarios for which the state might seek more in-depth analysis.

Among the options up for consideration is the “creation of an economy-wide carbon tax,” which, according to the report, could have “the effect of sending a price signal much closer to the societal cost of emissions incurred, addressing the market failure of the mismatch between prices and costs.”

Another option detailed in the report involves a “Total Renewable Energy and Efficiency Standard” that would “require all providers of energy in Vermont to meet a fraction of their sales with renewable energy or energy efficiency.”

The report said reasons for the “market failure” of renewable technologies run the gamut, from “prices that do not reflect costs” and “lack of information” to “lack of access to capital, and split incentives.”

The report also says that “government action can use four leverage points” to overcome those failures and “shape the adoption of technologies.” They include “education and outreach; finance and funding; regulatory reform; and technology and innovation.”

The report found that “financing tools and access to capital will be essential,” a reality Hopkins said stems from the fact that “a lot of the directions the state might go in involve more upfront costs in order to save money in the long term.”

“For example, a solar panel costs money up front, but then there’s no fuel costs while it’s operating, or if you weatherize a home, you have to put the money in up front, but you save on fuel bills over time,” Hopkins said.

Ben Walsh, clean energy advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said that if the Comprehensive Energy Plan that set out the renewable goals is the “what,” then the Total Energy Study is the “how.”

“What this study is looking at is if you zoom out and say, ‘How do we get from here to 90 percent renewables? … What’s the big answer?’ It’s not just the small, incremental steps, and that’s why this study is different,” Walsh said.

While input from scores of individuals and organizations informed the creation of the interim Total Energy Study, Hopkins said the department will be seeking additional public comment over the next few months. He said the department will be paying especially close attention to the perspectives of lawmakers, who will discuss the report early next year.