100% renewable power would cost $1.2 billion, at least

Converting Vermont to 100% renewable electricity would cost $1.2 billion, and that’s just the beginning, power transmission officials tell Senate committee

By Guy Page

February 14, 2020 – For years, renewable electricity advocates have dreamed of powering Vermont with instate, renewable generation and power storage. Today, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee learned more about the likely costs of making that happen.

The figures are sobering: $1.2  billion over five years for just two of the many necessary changes. 

S267 would build a “Fortress Vermont” 100% instate renewable power system costing more than $900 million in new back-up power storage costs alone, officials for Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) testified at the State House today. 

Power storage is essential  to any plan for 100% instate renewable power. 

At present  much of Vermont’s electricity comes from natural gas and nuclear power, delivering power more-or-less on demand. So there’s not much need for electricity storage. But if Vermont transitions to “intermittent” solar and wind power, back-up electricity storage becomes crucially important. Depending on how much the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, intermittent power often supplies too much power or too little. The solution is to store unneeded power in batteries (or some other collector) and then dispatch it as needed. 

But here’s the rub: grid-scale power storage is a new, developing, expensive technology. Thus the estimated $900 million over five years. 

That figure doesn’t include another $300 million lost when renewable power generation is “curtailed” – cut back – when supply exceeds demand on sunny, windy days. And on top of the $1.2 billion, ratepayers and/or taxpayers will need to foot the bill for grid improvements, extensive management of the power load, and the actual cost of producing more solar and wind power. At present solar power is three to five times more expensive than the  “market” power fueled mostly by natural gas and nuclear. 

S267 would require 100% total energy from renewable power by 2030. But utilities shouldn’t look north for more highly affordable Hydro Quebec hydro power. S267 lmits  “big hydro” power to 33% of a utility’s total load. 20% must be “distributed” power, meaning it is located, generated and distributed locally. Virtually all distributed power in Vermont is solar power. Nuclear power – although carbon-free – has long been specifically excluded as “renewable.”

Sen. John Rodgers (Essex-Orleans) wondered why his two Northeast Kingdom counties are still being targeted for renewable power projects, when the demand is on the west coast of  Vermont. “Developers are still proposing projects up there,” he said. “It makes my head explode. The whole idea of distributed energy was to build close to the consumers, so we didn’t have to build poles and wires.”

No action was taken on H267 today.  It remains to be seen if the bill will progress further. If the Global Warming Solutions Act (H688) becomes law, Vermont energy regulators might be required to aggressively pursue something like a 100% renewable power load. If so, today’s testimony gives Vermonters some idea of what H688 could mean in real energy consumer dollars.