With and without wind: two visions of a clean energy Vermont

On Thursday, the anti-wind group Energize Vermont released its plan for achieving a green energy future for Vermont by the year 2030. In his presentation of the plan, EV chief Luke Snelling sought to separate his group from those who deny the pressing reality of climate change. This plan, he said, proves that Vermont doesn’t need any more utility-scale wind in order to realize a clean-energy future. (It does depend on the current wind farms continuing to operate through 2030, which may be a bitter disappointment to those who claim to suffer negative health impacts from living near wind turbines.)

Problem. The plan actually proves just the opposite: it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a green future without additional utility-scale wind.

In this post, I’m comparing EV’s plan with VPIRG’s 2009 report, “Repowering Vermont.” First, the highlights; then the details.

— EV’s plan creates a lot less energy than VPIRG’s.

— EV’s plan makes no provision for widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

— EV continues Vermont’s reliance on nuclear power — and even increases it for a decade.

— EV relies much more heavily on power from Hydro Quebec, which has significant environmental consequences, including a need to upgrade transmission lines through the Northeast Kingdom.

— EV’s plan consumes far more fossil fuels between now and 2030, because if you take wind off the table, it takes a lot longer to grow a renewable power supply.  

VPIRG’s plan calls for the construction of six more wind farms the size of Lowell and Sheffield. With current facilities plus six more, Vermont would get 28% of its electricity needs from wind — including enough electricity to account for widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

These are all facts taken directly from the two reports.

After the jump: Five charts and a lot of information.  

Here are three pie charts. The first, from EV’s report, shows our current energy mix. The second is EV’s vision for a greener 2030. The third is the equivalent chart from VPIRG.

These charts illustrate many of my points, but they obscure one very crucial one: EV’s plan would produce far less energy than VPIRG’s. EV’s target figure is 6500 GWh (gigawatt hours), while VPIRG accounts for 8400 GWh. Both plans foresee significant efficiency gains; VPIRG makes allowances for widespread use of electric vehicles.

It gets worse. In 2030, EV sees Vermont getting 9% of its power from market sources (usually fossil fuels-based, not considered renewable) and 7% from nuclear, VPIRG includes no nuclear power and only 5% from market sources. So, if you take nuclear and market power out of the equation, EV’s plan would produce 5460 GWh of renewable power, while VPIRG’s would produce 7980.

EV’s reliance on nuclear also hits a deadline shortly after 2030. Current power contracts with out-of-state reactors expire in 2035; would EV extend those contracts? If not, where would it find an additional 7% of our power supply?

EV would increase our dependence on power from Hydro Quebec. HQ power, from huge hydroelectric dams in northern Quebec, negatively impacts the environment, wildlife, and native populations. EV would see an increase in use of HQ power from 34% today to 38% in 2030. VPIRG would reduce HQ’s share of our pie to 24%.

Also, the transmission lines from HQ through the Northeast Kingdom are maxed out, or close to it. Using more HQ power would require a major upgrade of transmission lines, which brings new costs and environmental impacts.  

There’s one more huge drawback to the EV plan, as can be seen in a close examination of these two charts. The first is EV’s, and the second is VPIRG’s.

By eschewing expansion of utility-scale wind, EV takes much longer to approach its goal, which would mean burning a lot more fossil fuel along the way. Look at the electric-power mix in the middle range of both charts, and you’ll see the effect of forgoing wind:

— EV would increase dependence on nuclear power for more than a decade, between 2015 and 2025.

— “Market sources” continues to be a sizable source for EV into the mid-2020s, while VPIRG cuts our use of market power to 5% by 2017.

— By either account, it will take another decade or more to ramp up solar power, while wind resources can be increased within a few years. Utility-scale wind can provide one-fourth of our power much more quickly than solar can get out of the single digits.

And one more question for backers of the EV plan. Many of those who are concerned about utility-scale wind have also opposed expansion of biomass and in-state hydro — and, in some cases, solar. If we turn away from wind and toward sources like biomass, local hydro and solar, will EV’s backers accept that? Or will expansion of biomass and solar result in further opposition? If so, then EV’s target becomes impossible to hit.

In sum, EV’s plan would produce a lot less power, rely more heavily on environmentally impactful sources, and would fall short of providing the power needed for widespread use of electric-powered transportation.

The question, then: Do we think the effects of a modest increase in utility-scale wind are bad enough that we are willing to accept all the shortfalls and drawbacks of Energize Vermont’s plan? Is its total environmental footprint larger or smaller than VPIRG’s?

I think the answer to that last question is obvious to anyone approaching this issue with an open mind.  

8 thoughts on “With and without wind: two visions of a clean energy Vermont

  1. Energize Vermont’s plan is different from VPIRGs because it takes a more pragmatic approach. It is less wishful “wouldn’t it be nice” thinking and more, “what can we actually do?” EVs plan is possible, maybe even likely, VPIRGs plan is very optimistic (and slightly outdated). What this means is that EV’s plan:

    Predicts the need for less electricity than VPIRGs because it doesn’t estimate a full adoption of PEVs. It says there will be 110k electric vehicles, which amounts to roughly 300 to 400 GWhs of added demand, not the 2,500 GWhs that VPIRG includes. It cites UVM’s studies for suggesting the grid could handle this added load. This estimate was based on automotive industry estimates of sales figures and typical vehicle life.

    EV doesn’t add additional nuclear for two decades, but the existing contracts do. This is a change that if VPIRG updated their plan they’d also have to account for. See: http://vtdigger.org/2011/11/10

    EV may assume more fossil fuels between now and 2030, but mostly because it is more accurate assumption of renewable adoption. If EV’s plan uses more CO2 than VPIRGs in the meantime, it is due to the difference in when/if wind is used and the more reasonable adoption curve for solar. Otherwise it does not appear to have a hugely significant difference or reliance on CO2 sources. The trends are pretty similar.

    EV’s plan included assessing resource cost, and tried to emphasize clean(er) resources (like HQ) that could help buffer the cost of renewables as they became increasingly more affordable. VPIRG benchmarked against VY for cost effectiveness. So this could explain some of the differences in decision making.  

    EV’s plan is about limiting impacts, and part of limiting impacts is using less.

    Lastly, the intent is to update the plan a couple of times a year, so it should be a good evolving discussion that reflects input from a lot of parties. If you have more questions or have more thoughts, email us at info@energizevermont.org.

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