BRATTLEBORO — If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? In southern Vermont, a more important question would be: Does it cause a power outage?
Just think about the biggest weather events that hit southern Vermont this year - the March storm that left up to 4 feet of heavy wet snow in some towns and the massive rainstorm in July that delivered a month's worth of rain in a day and caused serious flash flooding.
In between were wild swings in temperature that ranged from a killing frost in May that took out much of the state's apple crop to the many days this summer that topped 90 degrees.
Even by the normal standards of wildly erratic Vermont weather, it's been a hard year. And the immediate future promises more of the same.
With most of its power lines exposed, Green Mountain Power (GMP) runs approximately 77% of the power in the state, serving approximately 270,000 customers in 202 municipalities spanning 7,500 square miles. So keeping the power flowing in all kinds of weather is at the top of GMP's priorities.
That is why GMP is transitioning from a traditional utility into a technology company under the leadership of its president and CEO, Mari (pronounced "Mary") McClure.
"For over 100 years, we were an electric distribution utility," McClure said during a September interview at GMP's Brattleboro district office. "For the past decade or so, we were an energy transformation company, offering new products and services on the edges of our traditional business."
Now, McClure said, "we are fast becoming a technology company, which means technology is now a critical part of what we do and how we deliver for Vermonters."
The future is a two-way energy delivery system that lets homes store excess electric capacity and lets it flow back out of the house and into the larger grid during peak demand. It'll also be 100% carbon-free, and supported by a series of customers' small-scale self-contained grids, independent yet interconnected for strength and resilience.
"Our customers will be both consumers and producers, and we will connect it all together to maximize value and minimize cost," McClure said. "Technology will be at the heart of what we do."
Dealing with a changing climate
"Climate change used to be hard to talk about," said McClure. "Now everybody sees it all around. And what's really more important is, what are we going to do about it? I've been at this organization just going onto 14 years. And there's no doubt that we've seen climate change happen over time here. And particularly in the last five years."
In prior years, "if it was an extreme weather event, it wasn't very often," she continued. "And then it would exit the state, giving us and others opportunity to go out and fix the lines."
Now, McClure said, "the storms are coming in and they don't necessarily leave right away."
"And so we are having to deal with much more extreme and much more frequent weather," she said, pointing to the March storm in southern Vermont, particularly in Windham County.
"It was wet. Wet snow is very heavy. It sits on the trees. It sits on the lines. It knocks over things. So this past winter, in the southern part of the state […], we've never seen anything like that heavy wet snow. It was like cement was falling from the sky.
"So we're out restoring the power lines, and our crews are coming up on 4 feet of snow. How are we even going to get to this infrastructure when it's in the middle of a field?"
Climate change is the reason McClure and GMP have come up with a different strategy. First and most obviously, GMP is seeking to bury the power lines whenever and wherever it can.
"Historically, the cost of 'undergrounding' our lines was astronomical," McClure said. "I mean, compared to the cost of the overhead lines. You just couldn't justify it from a cost perspective."
That's changed, with "better and cheaper" technology, which "allows for much longer spans under the ground than there used to be," she said.
The biggest transformation, and the one in which Vermont is leading the nation, is helping customers become energy producers as well as energy customers.
"This is about battery storage," McClure said. "It's tying the electric vehicles into the grid. This is where you really get customers having energy independence and resilience at the same time."
How might this world look 10 years from now? "Imagine a world where you're in a small town like Dummerston and you have an outage," she said. "But you have an electric vehicle. And that vehicle keeps your house lit up while the grid gets fixed."
A microgrid is essentially a small electric grid that can operate independently from the larger grid during outages.
"It allows those customers within it to stay powered up even when the larger grid is damaged by severe weather," McClure said.
In the simplest example of a microgrid, Green Mountain Power is already deploying the Tesla Powerwall, a program that captures solar power and banks it for later use, either by the individual customer or for GMP's needs during peak power demand.
"Instead of a big, centralized grid, we will have a decentralized grid. You, as a customer, will now have a two-way relationship with the grid," McClure said.
That will be possible because "we will have generation assets on the distribution system," she said. "The generators are in people's driveways, in people's basements, and on people's roofs."
"All over the state, we're able to generate and distribute the power right where it's needed in communities," McClure said. "Storage was a big game changer for this model. We were never able to store electricity, except in the kind of little batteries that you put in your Walkman. But we now can store electricity for much longer periods of time. That was a game changer."
Individual customers with such systems are able to generate and store their own electricity. "So when the greater grid goes down, we'd have these microgrids all over the state," McClure said. "And customers would stay powered up while we fix the grid."
The future lies in many microgrids at the home level and at the community level, with solar farms serving clusters of customers with renewable power. But that future might be a hard sell. It is difficult enough to get a permit to build an apartment house in some towns. How do you sell them on a large solar field, for example?
"The first thing we have to do is go to towns, communicate with them, tell them what we want to do," McClure said. "We have to respond to their concerns. We have to establish trust. And then we have to deliver. And that's how we'll do it."
In 2021, GMP pioneered the community microgrid in Panton, a small town on Lake Champlain in Addison County - the first in the nation.
"We started there," McClure said. "We got to know the town, we got to know what its [residents'] needs were. And we figured out a plan on how to deliver a much more resilient community."
The plan was a solar farm, 4.9 megawatts in size, with a large storage facility attached to it.
"It's a distribution circuit - the poles and wires that deliver energy to local homes and businesses - that can disconnect from the greater grid during a storm, and still keep customers connected using solar power and batteries alone," McClure said. "No fossil fuel is involved at any point."
The microgrid started with about 50 customers. "That is still true today, but it can expand to include hundreds more in town," she said.
In the event of storm damage or a prolonged grid outage, the Panton microgrid enables backup power from the batteries and solar panels to flow to a network of customers served by the traditional grid. The concept is called "islanding."
In Panton, the solar panels are on a tracker system, which means they "follow the sun and can stretch the battery backup power for days, if necessary," McClure said.
This plan is replicable. "It is the foundation for our Resiliency Zone projects that are helping communities across the state stay connected, even in severe storms," McClure said.
One variation on the microgrid idea is the "resilient neighborhood" concept in South Burlington. Here, GMP is partnering with the property development company O'Brien Brothers to build an all-electric, fully storm-resilient 155-home development on land the O'Brien Brothers own.
"I'm really excited about this," McClure said. "They approached us, I think, first to talk about this idea around a zero-carbon home. So we've been working with them for years to figure this out. This neighborhood is exactly everything that I've just described. And we want to bring it to other parts of the state as well."
There will be low-income housing, market-rate housing, multi-use buildings, and duplexes.
"It's really a neat community they're putting together there," McClure said. "That neighborhood will be completely resilient. There will be solar on the roofs and storage in the homes, and it will all be connected to the grid. Electric vehicle charging will already be in the homes, also connected to the grid. So for example, if a major storm hits that area of the state, those customers are powered up with the solar and the storage while we fix the grid."
Again, the power will flow two ways.
"Say it's a super hot summer day with no weather threat," McClure said. "If we have a high demand for electricity elsewhere, we'd be able to tap into the stored energy in those homes to lower costs for the greater grid."
In that scenario, the customers - who already would be getting a financial incentive for having the battery - would be selling unused power back to GMP.
"You'll have storage in the basements, and then we'll have our own big storage units, as well," McClure said.
The power plant in your driveway
"Electric vehicles are one of the key strategies to us," McClure said. "They basically help all of Vermont to become one big microgrid."
Much of Vermont is old housing stock, with perhaps only a small 60-amp or 100-amp power panel.
"How can we possibly ask those people to electrify?" McClure said. "They don't have enough amps in their panel. What are they going to do to replace their panel? It's expensive. Maybe they can't afford that. It has to become a part of our business."
The electric car, then, becomes part of the microgrid of the future.
"All manufacturers are going to make those vehicles," McClure said. "So our virtual power plant is sitting in your driveway. It has to get hooked in to your house in such a way that it keeps your house in power as well as helping the greater grid."
The technology to charge an electric vehicle at home - such as the Ford F-150 Lightning truck that McClure drives - is expensive. GMP is working to change this.
"Right now, if you want to hook up your house or the panel in your home to your vehicle, particularly one like a Lightning, you essentially have to put a substation in your garage," McClure said. "Number one, it's really expensive, which most Vermonters are not going to be able to afford or not going to want to do anyway. And second, it's so much equipment."
GMP is working to "figure out a way through innovations with these folks, to bring this in a much more simplified way," says McClure, who promises that "it's coming. I see it happening within the next five years."
To illustrate her point, McClure told a story about last Christmas Eve, when she was working late due to a storm and the resultant power outages.
"I drove up the driveway and my spouse, Amanda, knew I was on my way home," McClure said. "So she had all the holiday lights on as I came through. It was just this beacon of light and I thought, 'My God, all my neighbors will think I have some special connections, when it's really just my truck sitting there.'"
That, she said, is when "I had a glimpse into what this is going to be like for Vermonters - and particularly rural Vermonters - in central and southern Vermont, who need it the most."
One complaint people have about electric vehicles is the difficulty of charging them away from home. Drivers are concerned about the distance they can get on their charge in between stations.
GMP is planning to install many more charging stations around the state, McClure said, and the company plans to offer fast charging "within 20 minutes of every Vermonter, off the highways and in rural parts of the state."
"We've got 15 offices all throughout the state, and we're bringing fast charging to all of those," she said. "Our fleet can use them, and so can our customers."
Eventually, gas stations will understand that they should be offering electric charging as well as gas.
"Some of the best places to charge are rest areas, because you can go in and sit down," McClure said, noting that charging a vehicle "takes a little longer than filling your tank with gas."
"But over the next five years, that's going to get faster and faster," she said. "So you'll see gas stations switch to it. Eventually. I mean, they have to."
The cost of power
If consumers buy into an all-electric future, doesn't it mean that GMP will make more money? Not really, McClure said, because in the end it will mean less cost for electricity, not more.
"What we are proposing is going to result in lower energy costs for the consumer," McClure said. "You electrify your home. You've got an electric car. You've got electric heat. You've got storage. Maybe you have solar, or maybe you might not need it. Imagine so many Vermonters having all that!"
This scenario will lower "a ton of our operational costs," she said. "We don't have to respond to storms, so you won't see that storm surcharge anymore. The way we deliver power completely changes the system."
For McClure, "it has to lower costs, first and foremost. I couldn't do this job otherwise. I wouldn't feel pure about it."
McClure's house is completely electric. "So, if you look at my electric bill, of course it's gone up," she said. "I'm using more electricity. But I don't ever stop at a gas station. I might pull up and get a coffee or something, but I don't have to get out in the cold and pump gas. And my gas bill is completely eliminated.
"We used to be on heating oil. The guy who delivered it was a wonderful person. I loved him. It was so sad, the last day he left. Because I got rid of my oil tank. I'm only on heat pumps now. And my heating oil bill was not only astronomical, it was riding a commodity wave. Whatever the cost of oil was, it was the cost of oil. So I don't have that anymore."
The point is that heating oil, cordwood, and gasoline will disappear from Vermonters' monthly expenses.
"Your biggest expense is your transportation," McClure said. "When you switch that over, you're going to save. So while your electric bill might go up, I'm not profiting. That is lowering costs for everybody else in the state and lowering costs for the grid."
Put another way: "If you go electric, I want the energy bill in your house to be lower than how you currently live," she explained. "That is the most important thing we can talk to Vermonters about. The more people switch to electric, the more and more the cost goes down."
McClure says that she's after a 100% renewable clean future for Vermont that is affordable.
"The programs we're designing both bring resilience to your home and lower costs for the system, or we don't do them," she said. "That's the key. And we've got to show, as part of our filings with regulators, how energy costs come down for folks with the electrification. I don't want Vermonters to think that once they go electric, we're just going to jack up their rates."
Microgrids, according to McClure, can protect Vermonters from outside pressures. The war in Ukraine, for just one example, affected the price of gas.
"I want to get Vermont to a place where those energy costs come down," she said. "The most important thing for me is, how do I get Vermont resilient? How do we, as we roll out this distributed future, play a part in bringing those customers and getting them into the decentralized grid - with storage in particular, and their electric vehicles in particular?
"It's a real concern that we share, and we've got to deal with as a state," McClure said.
This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.