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The elephant in the room

Renewable Energy Conference discusses interim measures to move the state closer to its goal of 90 percent renewable energy

Tad Montgomery is the principal of Tad Montgomery and Associates, an ecological engineering firm that “build[s] systems and technologies that restore the environment and society’s relationship to it,” according to the firm’s website.


There’s an African saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Here in Vermont, we have an equally daunting task — achieving 90 percent renewable energy by 2050. The African metaphor would imply that we can do so one house, one business, and one institution at a time, and this sentiment was in full swing at the recent Renewable Energy Vermont (REV) conference in Burlington.

In addition to the single bites of solar hot water, air-source heat pumps, and farm-scale methane digesters, the conference offered lessons in stalking elephants (community solar systems and non-fossil-fuel transportation); in dressing elephants (financing options for small and large-scale projects); and a number of recipes for cooking elephants (successful wind projects, net-metering legislation that allows for people to share renewable energy systems, and designing buildings that produce more energy than they consume).

The 90-percent-renewable energy goal is daunting, and a couple of major initiatives were unveiled at the event to help Vermont move along.

* * *

The first was a public announcement by Vermont Secretary of Commerce and Community Development Lawrence Miller of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Vermont and the Austrian state of Oberösterreich (Upper Austria) on the promotion of biomass for heating.

Vermont and Upper Austria are both recognized leaders in the development and promotion of biomass heat as a local and renewable heating source. Nearly half of Upper Austria’s heating demand is met through renewable sources, with a goal of 100-percent renewable heat by 2030.

For its part, Vermont already displaces more than 40 million gallons of heating oil annually through the use of biomass fuels, and the state is a leader in the deployment of biomass for schools and public buildings.

The MOU provides for cooperation between the two states in the areas of biomass heating policy development, scientific and technological cooperation, and education and training.

Specific activities could include jointly organized workshops on biomass best practices, exchange visits by policy and industry experts between the two states, and development of business opportunities for the sale of biomass equipment, as well as technical expertise.

* * *

Another initiative unveiled by the board of REV was a “20 percent by 2020” plan to get Vermont to that level of renewable energy by that year.

“There is no reason why this state of Vermont should not be capturing as many opportunities from the great bulk of jobs from solar to biomass, to wind, to geothermal, to efficiency, across the board,” said REV Executive Director Gabrielle Stebbins.

Vermonters send an estimated $1.7 billion a year out of state to pay for fossil fuels used for heating and transportation. It is estimated that households in Brattleboro alone spend $20 million to $24 million for heating oil.

Citing a study by the Biomass Energy Resource Center, Stebbins said that if we in Vermont converted just 19 percent of our homes and businesses to locally produced biomass fuels used in modern, efficient boilers, it would create about 7,000 jobs. That figure does not include jobs that would be created in making those buildings more energy efficient, which could have an equally big and synergistic economic effect.

Upper Austria has more than 300 farmer-owned biomass energy cooperatives, many connected to district heating systems for small villages.

Efficiency and conservation are a key component of Vermont’s strategy. As part of the REV announcement, there was a commitment by Efficiency Vermont (EVT) to double the amount of conservation that it has achieved in the state — to 28 percent by 2020.

Since 2000, EVT has helped residents and businesses to achieve 14-percent electrical energy savings, said EVT Director Jim Merriam. In addition to electric cost reductions for users, this conservation has resulted in $3 million of annual rebates to the state from ISO New England, the Northeast region’s energy-transmission organization.

* * *

On the solar-electric front, there are a number of exciting developments as well. One is the Solarize initiative, where a big push is mounted in a town or city to provide discounted solar photovoltaics to homeowners during a subscription period. The more homeowners and small businesses sign up, the cheaper the system for each household.

Contrary to the increasingly popular belief that state subsidies to homeowners for producing solar electricity is only leading to higher rates for all of the other ratepayers, data from a recent study in New York state show a net benefit to all ratepayers and to the grid when small-scale solar is installed.

This benefit can be the same as, or even more than, what these homeowners are paid for their electricity. VELCO, Vermont’s electricity transmission utility, estimates that $250 million has been saved in transmission costs through the implementation of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

* * *

A session at the conference was dedicated to on-farm energy systems. A project of note is the biodigester that Vermont Technical College is installing on its campus farm in Randolph.

This system is designed to accept manure from a number of dairy and goat farms in the area, as well as food waste and other biomass from the college and town. Methane will be captured and burned to produce electricity for the school, and excess heat will be piped to nearby buildings during the cold months.

Brattleboro should take note of this project as we consider what to do with all of the food waste that is now being collected at curbside.

* * *

Not everything at the conference was peaches, cream, and MOUs, however.

One point of strong contention was how Vermont is going to come up with the funds to pay for energy efficiency retrofits for our aging building stock.

The goal is to insulate and weatherize 80,000 buildings by 2020. Experts at the conference admitted that we are way behind schedule. A task force set up by the Legislature reported that it will take about $1 billion to achieve the goal.

This figure seems daunting until one realizes that Vermont spends between $400 million and $800 million on imported heating fuels every year. The same task force estimates that for every $1 spent to achieve this goal, the state will realize $6 in direct and indirect economic benefits.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #229 (Wednesday, November 13, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

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