Low Cost of Renewable Power

Sep 10, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of Theodore Scott @ flickr.com

photo courtesy of Theodore Scott @ flickr.com

Whether you are looking to put solar panels on your roof or joining with neighbors for a new community solar project, you know that the cost of renewable energy has come down a lot in the past few years.

For many customers, using solar or wind guarantees stable or lower electric bills for years to come.

And it reduces pollution as we collectively rely less and less on dirty and polluting fossil fuels to keep our gadgets going and our homes comfortable.

On a larger scale, renewable energy is having the same effect on electricity prices in New England.  Apart from reducing pollution, a key benefit to most renewable energy, like wind and solar, is their low or zero fuel cost. When the sun shines or the wind blows, they produce power and no one is sending them a fuel bill.

Most power plants in the region need to pay for coal, oil, gas or uranium for fuel. The operating cost for these plants depends heavily on their cost of fuel. The cost of fuel gets passed on to customers and often dictates the price we pay for electricity. When fuel prices go up, the cost of electricity goes up.

As more and more renewable power becomes available in the region, low or zero fuel costs from the wind, sun or water are driving down the cost of electricity for everyone.

A recent report and activities by the ISO-New England, which is responsible for maintaining the reliability of our electric grid, confirms this.

This is good news for our pocket books and for the environment.

Our electric grid is a marvel of physics. Because electricity cannot be easily stored, the grid must balance the supply from large and small power generators with the demand caused by anything that we plug in. It is a bit like having a big dinner party and needing to keep everyone’s water glass filled without using a pitcher of water. You’ll have to keep the water from springs, wells and hoses available at just the right amount, and then keep the flow in the faucet to the exact amount needed, all the time.

To do this for electricity, the grid is managed in part by calling on generators to run when needed. The price for this wholesale power is set on an hourly basis by using auctions. The least expensive generators are called into service first and the last generator called into service to meet demand sets the price for all generators during that hour. That is why we pay a lot for electricity on hot summer days. Meeting demand when many air conditioners are running requires lots of electricity, including running some of the most expensive fossil-fuel plants.

Supplies that can operate at low cost, like wind and solar, can and do set the price we all pay during some hours. During the polar vortex in 2014, wind power reduced the wholesale price in New England by $26 million.  For a few hours last winter, renewable energy supplies actually set a negative price.

The value of their renewable energy credits, which they sell for every kilowatt hour they produce, mean that their operating cost is actually less than zero. The low cost of renewables drives down the wholesale price. If coal, gas or nuclear plants are operating in those hours, they not only don’t get paid for their energy, but they will have to pay the ISO. This puts further pressure on polluting plants to close down and not operate.

As renewable energy supply continues to grow to meet our region’s climate change mandates, our grid will have more and more of these lower cost power resources available. These will not only push aside fossil fuel plants that will be too expensive to run, it will also lower overall electricity prices for everyone.

One study in connection with the almost 500 megawatts of wind power expected from the Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts estimated a price reduction benefit of about $185 million annually. That is not only a lot less money that we will all pay for electricity, but a lot less pollution as well.

Solar School Success

Sep 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

DSC03678The future is bright at one Vermont school. Conservation Law Foundation joined other Vermont environmental groups and a class of fifth grade students to highlight the success of solar energy in Vermont.

We gathered at the Crossett Brook Middle School. The solar project there provides the school with electricity, stable power costs, and a great learning tool. As students play sports on the fields, or look outside their school windows, they see how their school is helping transform Vermont’s power supply and reduce global warming pollution.

The students’ future is certainly bright. They live and go to school in a community with some of the highest per capita production of solar energy in the nation.

Vermonters’ enthusiastic embrace of solar energy advances the state’s green energy economy. There are now more than 58 solar companies based in Vermont, employing more than 1,500 people, and contributing more than 76 million dollars last year to Vermont’s economy. The 138 MW of solar energy currently installed or permitted in Vermont is enough to power more than 22,000 homes while reducing greenhouse gas emissions roughly equivalent to taking 14,000 cars off the road in one year.

Solar power makes sense for Vermont and New England. The cost of solar power has declined more than 30% in the last year. Solar panels can attach to rooftops, industrial sites, or be placed on open land.

By providing power at times when it is most needed, increasing our reliance on solar helps reduce costs for all electric customers. Since solar power is generated close to where it is used, increasing our reliance on solar also reduces our need for expensive new transmission projects to bring power to Vermont from far away places.

With climate change bearing down on all of us, it is refreshing to see how students and local communities are leading the way.



Hiding the Ball

Aug 7, 2015 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

Photo courtesy of David Joyce @ flickr.com

Photo courtesy of David Joyce @ flickr.com

With our energy supply, when utilities hide the ball, the environment suffers.

In Vermont, regulators just imposed a $100,000 fine on the developer of a large natural gas pipeline, Vermont Gas Systems.  You can read the order here.

The company waited more than six months to disclose a significant cost increase for the project.

The Board wrote that the company “failed in its obligation of transparency,”  thus, undermining the regulatory process and “creating mistrust” among the public.

Harsh words, and a harsh fine. One of the largest ever imposed in Vermont and very near the maximum penalty allowed.

This project has been plagued with problems from the beginning.  CLF was the first to highlight the faulty analysis about the project’s significant greenhouse gas emissions. With the high cost of climate change, this project is simply a bad deal for Vermont.

Later problems include failure to treat landowners fairly, bulldozing wetlands that were to be protected,  and overall poor management.  Instead of transparency and responsibility, Vermont Gas seems to be taking a page from Entergy’s untrustworthy and lackluster management of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant that closed at the end of  2014.

As the regulators recognized, utilities need to build and maintain trust. When they hide the ball, keep costs and other important matters secret, or keep citizens out of the process and in the dark, the environment suffers.

Openness and transparency foster good management and good projects. A year ago, CLF challenged the withholding of public information about regional energy plans for new pipelines and transmission projects. The public should know about the real costs and impacts of our energy use. Good projects should have nothing to hide and no reason to keep the public out.

When it comes to energy decisions, hiding the ball just doesn’t cut it.



Paving Farmland? No Thanks!

Jul 22, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Location of proposed development

Location of proposed development

Massive over-development of valuable farmland at a rural highway exit in Vermont just doesn’t make sense.

CLF and others are challenging plans for building over one-million square feet – about the size of ten big box stores – at a scenic and rural highway exit in Randolph Vermont.

The project site includes some of the state’s most valuable farmland. In this area, good farmland is in very short supply. It supports area dairies, award-winning cheese makers and vegetable growers.

The floods and droughts from climate change mean that keeping farmland nearby is even more important.

At a recent “Act 250” land use hearing on the project, farmers explained why this land is so important. Carving these open fields into small parcels with limited access ruins the ability to continue farming in the area. Area farmers already travel great distances to access good land. Land that is close by should be more accessible.

Expert planners also showed that the proposed project falls far short of meeting regulatory requirements to protect valuable farmland. Vermont law requires that any development on good farmland must minimize the impact by clustering the buildings in a smaller area and using the land efficiently. Instead of meeting these standards the project would sprawl over more than half of the land at the site.

Paving over valuable farmland is bad for farming, bad for our climate and bad for the vitality of our downtowns.

You can hear recent story on Vermont Public Radio here, and see a display of the project’s impact below.

Buildings on soils

Settlement on Large Transmission Project Adds Benefits for Communities, Environment, and Climate

Jul 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Conservation Law Foundation recently reached a settlement in a Vermont permitting case for a large new electric transmission project proposed by TDI-NE.

The settlement adds significant benefits to a project planned to bring additional power from Canada into New England. The settlement ensures that the power being transmitted comes from hydro, wind, and solar projects – a critical step in meeting regional goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The settlement also boosts efforts to clean up Lake Champlain, which CLF has long championed, with TDI-NE committing more than $200 million towards cleaning up the lake, and $70 million for Vermont renewable energy.

You can read the Agreement here. And here is the TDI announcement about the Agreement.

The proposed project will deliver up to 1000 MW of power from Canadian sources to customers in Southern New England. That’s about equal to the power generated from one very large coal-fired plant, but with lower greenhouse gas emissions. The power would be sourced from large-scale hydro, wind and solar, all of which are considered renewable under Vermont law.

Building this transmission line is a significant project, one that will run entirely underwater, including under Lake Champlain, or underground and travel much of the length of Vermont. The agreement strengthens the environmental and public benefits of the project, including adding an additional $121 million over the life of the project to support Vermont renewable energy and much-needed Lake Champlain clean-up.

Highlights from the agreement include:

  • Increasing the combined monetary value of the Lake Champlain Phosphorous Cleanup Fund, Lake Champlain Enhancement and Restoration Trust Fund, and Vermont Renewables Programs Fund from the originally proposed $162 million to a minimum of $283.5 million over the 40-year life of the project.
  • Establishing a Renewables Integration Advisory Committee, which includes CLF and will seek to optimize and maximize the use of the project for improved integration of renewable power in New England.
  • Appointment of CLF to the Advisory Board of the Lake Champlain Enhancement and Restoration Trust Fund, which will make determinations about funding projects to enhance Lake Champlain.
  • Submission to regulators and the public by TDI-NE of all contracts with energy suppliers who utilize the transmission line to confirm that the energy shipped on the line is generated from non-fossil fuel energy sources.

With these agreements from TDI, CLF has agreed not to oppose any project-specific permits. But we do retain our right to express our views about electric transmission generally, funding processes for transmission projects, and the sources of power that will be transmitted by the proposed project.

CLF is pleased to have been able to work constructively with TDI-NE to reach this agreement, which demonstrates a good path forward in meeting our region’s future power and climate change needs while also promoting the general good of Vermont communities today. With several other transmission projects currently under consideration across New England, CLF will continue our critical role of watchdog to assure that our communities, environment, and climate are protected and our future power supply is clean and reliable.

Farmland vs. Asphalt

May 26, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Proposed Site of Exit 4 Development 5-22-15

Proposed Site of Exit 4 Development 5-22-15

Valuable farmland in Vermont is under siege. A proposal is on tap to build more than 1 million square feet of hotel, conference center, industry, shops and houses on very valuable farmland at a rural highway exit.

CLF joined over 50 local residents at a contentious initial hearing for the project. Going forward, CLF and partners will participate in the state permitting (Act 250) proceedings.

Vermont’s  thriving farm economy, our healthy environment and our healthy climate all depend on good farmland. Vermont’s many acres of valuable farmland support a wide and diverse range of agriculture. From apple orchards and berry farms, to community gardens, dairy, and livestock farms, these all rely on good quality farmland.

That good quality farmland pays us back in more than just the food and crops it grows. Local farms help Vermont be more resilient to the effects of climate change. They also help reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. And there is not a single Vermonter who doesn’t appreciate and value the open space and broad vistas that many of our farms provide. Our farms make Vermont unique. And our farms need good farmland to thrive.

Unfortunately good farmland is increasingly in short supply in Vermont. Good farmland takes thousands of years to create. Though Vermont is fortunate to have had the help of glaciers and rivers many years ago to create the valuable asset we now have, it is our responsibility to keep those assets intact and available for future generations.

As the impacts of climate change grow more severe, maintaining our farms and our ability to grow food and crops becomes more important than ever.

As Vermont moves out of the recent recession, the pressures increase on Vermont farmland. Pavement is not an agricultural product. Yet traveling along any of Vermont’s major roadways shows that farmland outside of town is sprouting more concrete than crops.

Bulldozing our rural farmland for massive new developments makes it harder to farm the land that remains. Farmers should not be left trying to piece together a viable farm from the few small parcels left behind.  Instead Vermont should strengthen the ways it encourages development in town and provide stronger protection for farmland outside of town. This helps farms create a bulwark against sprawling development. Keeping more services and buildings in town, surrounded by farms nearby, fosters community and helps us tackle global warming pollution. Our food is closer, providing more opportunities to drive less and burn less polluting fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, some plans for over-developing valuable farmland move Vermont in the wrong direction. The massive development planned for farmland at Exit 4 in Randolph is just one example. Others include a planned new truck stop and convenience store near the highway outside of Montpelier, and a new shopping mall on Route 7 south of Rutland. All of these are chewing away at farm fields.

Vermont’s landmark land use law, Act 250, provides valuable protections for farmland. As with water quality, air quality and community resources, Act 250 prohibits some building on valuable farm resources because it is just too damaging to the resource. In other situations, Act 250 requires projects to be designed in a way that leaves valuable agricultural soils available for farming.

The effectiveness of the Act 250 protections for valuable farmland is being sorely tested. Last year, in South Burlington, a developer sought a determination that a forty acre field with a farmhouse and barn on site was not in fact suitable for farming. Thankfully that request was rejected.

At the Randolph highway exit, the plan is to build over one million square feet — roughly equal to the size of 10 big box stores — in a rural and fairly undeveloped area, with over 100 acres of exceptionally high quality farmland.

When it comes to farming, Vermont should not erode its strong Act 250 protections. Instead Vermont’s support for farming should be as hardworking as its farmers. Our actions speak louder than our words.  We cannot say we support farming if our decisions drive more and more farmers off the land.

New Legislation in Vermont

May 18, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Lake Champlain

New legislation passed this session could help clean up ailing Lake Champlain.

It was a long and tiring Legislative session this year in Vermont.

On a very warm Saturday in May, Vermont’s legislators headed home. But not before making some good progress on key CLF priorities.

Clean Water

The key water quality bill, H.35,  focused on Lake Champlain. It sets a roadmap for further work. It provides funding for some additional staff for education and outreach as well as enforcement. It also creates a Clean Water Fund to keep track of funds spent on water quality.

Renewable Energy

The RESET law, H.40, finally eliminates the odd practice in Vermont that allowed the sale of Vermont created renewable energy credits to customers in other states while still claiming the power is renewable for meeting Vermont’s renewable energy goals.

The bill would set the highest standard of any place in the region for renewable energy – 75% by 2032. Much of this energy will come from existing facilities including from power imported from Hydro Quebec.

The new law will also require that 10% of the electricity in 2032 come from smaller scale renewable projects and provides for a new innovative program that encourages utilities to reduce overall fossil fuel use including from transportation and heating.  A troubling amendment that placed a cap on energy efficiency efforts was eliminated.

Toxic Soils

With growing development in downtown areas, disposing of contaminated soils has been challenging. A proposed bill, H.269, would have created a very broad exemption until new state rules are in place. CLF opposed the broad exemption and worked to strengthen the bill. As passed, the law provides a clear and safe way to manage soils from downtown developments. It avoids giving a broad handout to developers and makes sure that soils are managed to protect against any contact with people or water. It also provides a good test of effective soil management that should be helpful as the State develops rules.

Vermont is Burning the Furniture

Apr 30, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo courtesy of Vicki Burton @ flickr.com

photo courtesy of Vicki Burton @ flickr.com

Vermont legislators are scrambling to plug the budget – and there are plans to raid funding for heating efficiency to do that. This is troubling on many levels. It raids monies from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to backfill another shortage. It also comes on top of the proposal to shortchange energy efficiency as part of otherwise helpful energy legislation that would expand renewables and reduce fossil fuel use.

The end of a legislative session always brings out some of the worst ideas. It seems that as the warm weather approaches in Vermont, some lawmakers are keen to throw the furniture in the fire to eke out that last bit of heat after the woodshed is empty.

Burning furniture is burning money. Energy efficiency consistently delivers the biggest bang for the buck by reducing pollution and saving money for all of us. Smart investments should not be held hostage to close budget gaps.

A vote is expected on Friday May 1. If you are in Vermont, you can call your Senator and leave a message with the Sergeant-at-Arms at 802-828-2228 and tell your Senators to leave efficiency funding alone.

Quiet and Hardworking: Energy Efficiency

Apr 8, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

We all know them. Every family and office has at least one. That quiet and hardworking member of the team that day in and day out gets the job done.

No fanfare needed. Just consistently delivering results.

In the world of energy, that quiet and hardworking team member is energy efficiency. Every day, it cuts costs and cuts pollution, both for electricity and for heating. In doing so, it makes us better prepared for the future when climate change demands that we move away from fossil fuels and rely on cleaner and lower cost electricity.

At about half the cost of generating electricity, energy efficiency remains the lowest cost electric power resource. If we didn’t cut electric energy use with energy efficiency we would pay twice as much to buy that power from a power plant.

For more than a decade, Vermont has been a leader in relying on cleaner and low cost energy efficiency. In practical terms, our efficiency investments have avoided building new, expensive and polluting power plants, and has reduced the fossil fuels needed to heat our homes. Our reliance on efficiency also frees up energy for new uses such as heat pumps and transportation.

Energy efficiency is simply part of any sensible long-term energy strategy.

Here are some numbers:

In the past 13 years, electric efficiency in Vermont has produced savings of over 12.7 million megawatt hours. That is equal to the power needed to supply every home in Vermont for five years.

For 2014, energy efficiency met 13.3 percent of Vermont’s electric supply needs, an increase over 2013.

At the same time, electric energy efficiency in Vermont cut polluting greenhouse gas emissions by 8.7million metric tons since 2000. That is equivalent to reducing pollution by taking 1.8 million cars off the road each year.

But that is only part of the story. The regional New England grid operator recognizes the clear value of energy efficiency and holds it to high standards. Vermont is paid about $4 million dollars every year for its electric energy efficiency contribution to meeting the region’s power needs. Not only is that money reinvested in Vermont, and reduces fossil fuel use for heating, it lowers electric power costs for everyone in the region.

And in terms of electric transmission, Vermont’s investments in energy efficiency have deferred building over $279 million dollars of new electric transmission lines over the next decade.

From ski areas to grocery stores to homes and manufacturing, our energy efficiency efforts produce real results. Vermont’s employers are not only cleaner businesses, but also more competitive. For example, seventy five percent of Vermont ski areas have switched to more efficient snowmaking equipment, installing 2700 new snow guns that use up to 85% less energy to operate. That is a savings for all of us.

For such a quiet and hardworking resource, it is troubling that it has been caught in a political buzz saw this year. Energy efficiency was taken political hostage and cut as part of a new energy bill. We all know politics is not pretty. But it is sad when such shenanigans trump common sense, good policy and sound economics.

Rather than reward this quiet and hardworking team member, its ability to perform and deliver savings is being cut. Going forward, this means we will all pay more and pollute more.

It is time to make sure we rely on the cleanest and lowest cost resources. We should not leave real savings on the table and should not let politics elbow out the common sense solutions that benefit all Vermonters.