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October 23, 2023

Green Mountain Power’s Very Good Idea

Undergrounding power lines is good energy, environmental, economic and customer service policy.

Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility recently announced its “Zero Outages Initiative”. According to the press release:

“…a comprehensive, data-driven plan that creates layers of resiliency across Vermont by building on GMP’s successful and proactive undergrounding and storm-hardening of lines, as well as deployment of energy storage through batteries and microgrids. Combined, this work will keep customers and communities connected while lowering costs for all. The phased initiative rapidly accelerates this resiliency work through 2030, tackling the hardest hit areas in rural central and southern Vermont first, following a devastating year for the state that saw an unprecedented string of damaging storms due to climate change.”

Keeping the grid operating has become more expensive in recent years because of more storms and difficulty in finding and retaining linespeople. The cost of an outage to us, the consumers, has grown as we become more dependent on electricity and as more of us work at home. My family has a generator; and, although it is rarely used, it’s essential that the generator be there when needed. It costs several hundred dollars/year to maintain. As Vermont has reforested, there are more tall trees to fall on power lines and there’s an increased economic and environmental expense in constantly cutting them back.

What about cost?

Power companies used to say that the cost of installing and maintaining underground lines in rural areas was prohibitive. As rare as breaks were in underground lines, they were expensive to find and repair. Now very inexpensive microelectronics both detect weakness before it becomes failure and pinpoint any break. Pacific Gas and Electric (whose lines were responsible for many deadly California forest fires) wants to bury its lines and is running into regulatory resistance. “I did it myself as a utility executive—we told everyone it was too expensive,” [PG&E CEO Patti] Poppe said. “We have to unteach them, and show them how the map has changed because the conditions have changed.”

In California PG&E faces resistance to its undergrounding plan from those who want to spend more on subsidies for EVs and heating rather than on these practical grid upgrades. However, making electricity reliable is an effective and practical way to convince people to buy electric cars, electric ranges, and even electric heat pumps. The benefits of reliable electricity and lower maintenance costs are shared by all consumers, however; not just those who buy EVs. We may fight this battle in Vermont as well.

Count me as a radical. A reconstructed grid should be considered Vermont’s main “green” program; all its benefits are certain and felt here at home. It should be financed by eliminating the subsidies Vermont utilities now pay those who buy EVs, electric lawnmowers, and heat pumps. A super-reliable grid and lower electric bills will be incentive enough. Eliminating these subsidies may also make it practical for Vermont’s smaller utilities to become as reliable as GMP is going to be (if its plans are approved).

What about the batteries?

Part of GMP’s plan is to supply its customers with batteries like Tesla Powerwalls. The cost of burying a line for miles to reach just a few houses is unreasonable. These houses can and should get to “zero outages” with local backup. Batteries are almost but not quite at the point where they are practical for more than short outages. If the line crews can concentrate on only a few lines in a storm, perhaps all outages will be short.

One caveat not in the GMP press release; houses which are not on the ultra-reliable part of the grid cannot rely on electric heat pumps.  Home generators and batteries can power the fans, pumps, and ignitors in gas, oil, or woodchip furnaces. They cannot power electric heat pumps.  The usable stored electricity in a Tesla Powerwall (13.5 kWh) is not enough to keep heat pumps running more than half an hour in 20 degree weather in an average 2500 square foot house. Moreover, the batteries can’t currently discharge fast enough to run the heat pumps at all. This is not a flaw in the plan so long as we realize that it is perfectly OK to say electric heat will not be practical in some places.

The battery in a Tesla Model 3 comes in 50kWh and 82kWh sizes. You wouldn’t want to drain your Powerwall to fill your car if there’s a grid outage. You may want to use the energy in your car to keep your home running (that is beginning to be practical and is part of GMP’s longterm planning). However, you do need to have transport during an outage.

In the press release, GMP talks about eventually supplying battery backup alternatives to all their customers.  “The Zero Outages Initiative would provide residential batteries to customers in remote locations, delivering resiliency where it is needed most first, with a goal to have all customers have energy storage [emphasis added].”

GMP may be right that local microgrids and local storage are a good alternative for lowering overall electricity cost and the size of the transmission network needed. The PUC will need to evaluate this separately from the Zero Outages Initiative since no home which is dependent on batteries for eliminating outages can also be dependent on electric heat.

Kudos to GMP for being innovative in planning and climate mitigation.

See also: Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

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