The Commons
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Wishful thinking

Some calculations offer some alarming questions about what it would take to meet Vermont’s goals for transitioning to renewable energy

Meredith Angwin, a familiar pro-Vermont Yankee voice, has worked in many sectors of the utility industry for more than 20 years, most recently as director of the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute. Angwin and her husband, George Angwin, are developing a report for the Institute which will analyze the land-use implications of the state’s energy plan (and, she notes, will expand on the rough calculations that she describes in this piece).

Originally published in The Commons issue #211 (Wednesday, July 10, 2013).


In 2011, the Vermont Department of Public Service issued a comprehensive energy plan that asserts that 90 percent of all energy used in the state — including electricity, transportation, and building heating — will be provided from renewable sources by 2050.

Who could argue with the idea that almost all of the state’s energy should come from renewable energy by mid-century?

Probably nobody would argue, until they realize that what is called a “plan” isn’t actually a plan; it’s a collection of roughly sketched ideas, some good, some not-so-good.

At a hearing of the Vermont Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, one woman made a very clear statement. She said that the state energy plan is a collection of slogans, not a planning document. She was basically correct.

Nevertheless, the energy plan is guiding many statewide energy decisions: expediting small hydro installations, attempting to close Vermont Yankee, supporting ridgeline wind development.

* * *

The realization that the 90-percent goal is influencing statewide energy policy is particularly troubling when you examine some of its implications.

For starters, it is hard to use renewable energy for transportation and heating unless we use electricity for these sectors. We can make electricity with renewable energy, and then use it to run electric cars and heat pumps.

Both these choices will increase the demand for electricity.

Right now, Vermont uses 6,000 GWh of electricity per year. (A GWh is a million kilowatt hours.) My estimate is that Vermont would need 18,000 GWh annually to achieve the 90-percent goal by switching to electric cars, heat pumps, and so forth. That’s an outrageously big number, but it coincides with two other rough calculations I’ve seen from renewable advocates.

In a recent op-ed, Charles McKenna, a local Sierra Club member, estimated the state would need 15,000 GWh in order to achieve the 90 percent renewable goal. In a recent Green Energy Times, David Blittersdorf, a renewable developer, said that the 90-percent goal will require three times the electricity we use now, or 18,000 GWh.)

To put this number in perspective, consider that Vermont currently buys approximately 2,000 GWh from Hydro-Québec. This figure now represents about a third of our current electricity demand, but it would be only a small fraction of the electricity needed for a 90-percent renewable goal.

* * *

Unfortunately for Vermont, renewable sources tend to be diffuse, not energy dense. If we really tried to make this much electricity with renewables, we would have to devote much of Vermont’s land to energy generation.

For example, Lowell Mountain’s wind turbines each sweep the area of a football field because wind is not a dense energy source. The average wind can blow some trash around, but it can’t pick up a small dog and move it.

If you want to make enough wind-based electricity to make it worthwhile to put in a transmission line, you need to build a wind turbine with a blade that is more than half the length of a football field. Then the blade can capture enough wind.

I did another rough set of calculations to estimate how many wind turbines, biomass plants, solar panels, and so forth would be needed to generate 18,000 GWh of electricity. The results are appalling.

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