What, isn’t Vermont “green”? Of course it is, right? Wrong.
Green Mountain Power, which is owned by a Canadian natural gas distributor and supplies 70% of Vermont with electricity, claims that its energy supply is 94% carbon-free and more than 63% renewable. This sounds great, except that 95% of this electricity is produced in 20th century facilities, many of which — particularly hydroelectric dams — are 50 to 100 years old or more.
Do we really think we can solve the climate crisis without building new renewables? It is magical thinking, or worse, as both the state and the major utilities are complicit in misleading Vermonters. Solar produces only 2% of the state’s electricity, and the small amount of wind energy generated in Vermont is shipped out of state.
Vermont is going backward. Permits to build solar, issued by the Public Utilities Commission, declined by two-thirds in the past two years due to the use of Koch brothers-inspired “cost shifting” arguments to cut net metering. The diabolical PUC just dramatically cut the value of solar in Vermont. Its action, combined with expiring federal tax credits, will reduce the value of new solar for Vermont consumers by 40% in just 14 months. The state has already killed more than 400 good-paying solar jobs in the past two years, and thousands more are on the chopping block.
As president of Norwich-based Solaflect Energy, I am all too aware of these policy headwinds. However, as a mission-driven company, we are far more concerned about the future of the local economy, and of the planet for our children.
If we used the analytical framework and regulatory decisions of the Department of Public Service and the Public Utilities Commission, we would all be stuck using landlines, not cellphones. Even though landlines and cellphones both make phone calls, they are qualitatively different. Likewise, residential and community solar are qualitatively different than centralized, monopoly-controlled utility power.
The thousands of Vermonters who have already “gone solar” understand this. There is a different ownership structure, a different feeling of environmental stewardship, different resiliency characteristics, control structures and sharing options, different integration options with home automation, and different options for the future as battery prices plummet and transportation and thermal needs are electrified.
Any serious projections of a carbon-free future see decentralized generation, ownership, communication, sharing and control as essential. The current analytical framework of the DPS and PUC are based entirely upon a 20th century electricity grid model. The regulators are living in the 20th century; Vermont solar consumers are instinctively in the 21st century. The early adopters of solar are driving this energy transformation.
This does not minimize the challenges in a transition to a 21st century grid. However, the vision has to be of the 21st century, and the job of regulators should be to minimize the economic disruptions during the transition and facilitate it, not to stop the transition.
We can correct such misguided polices by maintaining net metering and building more in-state renewables. This would allow 20th century nuclear and hydropower to replace coal plants in other nearby states and provinces of Canada. That is the fastest way Vermont can contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions.
There have been decades of largely unheeded warnings about climate change, but the reality is here today in a major way, and is only going to get worse. Just one storm, Tropical Storm Irene, caused $733 million of damage in Vermont. It was the canary in the coal mine.
The headlines of 2020 are sobering:
■ September 2020 was the warmest September worldwide in 140 years of records, and seven of the warmest Septembers ever have occurred in the past seven years.
■ California’s largest wildfire ever exceeds 1 million acres, larger than Rhode Island, and five of the 10 largest California wildfires on record are in 2020.
■ More named storms have made landfall in the U.S. in 2020 than in any previous year.
■ It hit 100 degrees in Siberia, the hottest on record that far north.
Does anyone with children or grandchildren truly think 20th century “renewable” facilities will solve our problems for their 21st century? The state has a legal and moral obligation to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, which it has been these past several years.
Climate change cannot be mitigated without building new renewable facilities now. Vermont must do its part and legitimize its green reputation. Contact your legislator today and insist that Vermont stop greenwashing. We must maintain net metering and community solar rather than killing solar jobs.
Bill Bender, of Norwich, is the founder and president Solaflect Energy.
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