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June 15, 2010

Vermont’s Smart Green Move

Would you say that hydropower is renewable? Well, if you live in New England or certain other states including California, your state law says large scale hydropower coming from Canada is NOT renewable.

Current Vermont law defines renewable energy as "energy produced using a technology that relies on a resource that is being consumed at a harvest rate at or below its natural regeneration rate" but doesn't stop there. "For purposes of this chapter, the only energy produced by a hydroelectric facility to be considered renewable shall be from a hydroelectric facility with a generating capacity of 200 megawatts or less." Whoops, there goes a million kilowatt dam.

Vermont, however, has just become a leader in recognizing energy and environmental reality. H.781 of this session of the Vermont Legislature repeals the exclusion of large facilities; effective July 1, 2012, hydropower generated by Hydro Quebec (HQ) from its facilities on James Bay IS legally renewable. HQ was very eager to have green Vermont set an example and will even share some of the financial benefits with Vermont if other states use HQ power as renewable.

Why in the name of Webster's Unabridged, you may ask, does it matter, whether the law says hydropower is renewable or not? The water is going downhill anyway and we don't use it up by routing it through a turbine and harvesting multi-megawatts as it goes by; what could be more renewable?

But it does matter what state law calls "renewable". Many states have requirements that their utilities obtain an increasing amount of power from "renewable" sources. If you rule out large hydro (or out-of-state sources of all kinds), it becomes both difficult and expensive to meet that requirement. There aren't many new hydro sites available in the US. Solar electrical generation in the Northeast is impractical without huge government subsidies and even then is very expensive for electric customers and still has limited potential. There are a relatively small number of sites for effective wind turbines and the best ones are in scenic places and attract heavy local opposition.

Some numbers help. Wholesale power from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant (not renewable), currently costs about $.04 per kilowatt hour (kwh); power from HQ under the current contract is around $.066/kwh; power from coal (which we don't use much in New England) is in this price range or cheaper. Most Vermont residents pay about $.15/kwh at retail for home electricity. However, Vermont utilities were recently required to buy solar power at $.30/kwh – twice retail –and those projects still require tax breaks and other subsidies to break even. We ratepayers, of course, end up paying the bill twice – once to the electric utility and once more in taxes. There was huge controversy over the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod. After many years it was finally approved. The first wholesale contract signed for its output was at $.30/kwh with an annual escalator! Even though the wind is free, building offshore is expensive. If we are going to rely on local wind and sun for our renewable energy, we are going to be facing very high energy bills. In Vermont the problem is exacerbated, of course, by the pending expiration of Vermont Yankee's license and the real possibility that it won't be renewed.

OK, you say, this shouldn't be about money; we should use less electricity anyway. Higher prices will discourage electricity use. That's dead wrong from either a carbon-phobic or energy independence point of view. We need to use more electricity so that we use less oil. 73% of us in Vermont heat our homes with oil and propane compared to the national average of only 15.5%; most of us drive a lot. 61% of our household CO2 emissions come from heating; 31% from driving. If we're going to reduce our dependence on oil significantly, it will be because we use MORE electricity.

So both energy independence (at least independence from oil producers) and lower CO2 emissions depend on reasonably priced electricity. That's why not only Republican Governor Douglas but also the Democratic chairs of both the House and Senate committees with environmental responsibility supported the designation of Hydro Quebec power as renewable and why most environmental groups in Vermont supported the change in the law. However, there is still opposition to declaring large hydro renewable from both those who believe that aboriginal people are being disadvantaged by the flooding of their historical hunting ground (despite the compensation they agreed to accept) and those who would rather not compete with low-cost large-scale hydro for the lucrative business of supplying "renewable" energy; it was this coalition which was originally responsible for voting Canadian hydro off the renewable island.

See http://vtdigger.org/2010/06/09/irwin-a-requiem-for-vermonts-green-stamp/ for the antiHQ argument by Keefer Irwin and http://vtdigger.org/2010/06/09/deen-lawmakers-paid-close-attention-to-hydro-quebec-impacts/ for a rebuttal by David Deen, who is Chair of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources and has impeccable environmental credentials.

Here's how they see the story in Montreal.

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