Burlington Free Press: Vermont faces up to energy challenge

Sep 30, 2011 No Comments by

Reposted here from the Burlington Free Press.

Two apprentice weatherization technicians with Fresh Energy squeezed orange insulating foam into cracks between boards and spaces around wires in the attic of unit 421 at Northgate Apartments in Burlington on Wednesday. The foam forms a barrier that prevents warm air from leaking from the lower-level living space.


Air sealing is one of three steps the owners of the 336-unit affordable housing complex have undertaken this year to enhance energy efficiency and shrink heating bills for residents.


By winter, families in 60 units will have beefed up insulation in their attics and basements, air-tight rooms and new high efficiency boilers. These changes are expected to save residents at least 25 percent on their heating bills, said Kathleen Tyrrell Luce, vice president of Maloney Properties Inc., which manages the apartment complex.


Some residents in the 70 units upgraded earlier saw savings as high as 50 percent. The Northgate Residents Ownership Corp. is working to secure financing so it can deliver the same efficiency improvements to residents in the remaining 206 apartments by the end of 2012, Tyrrell Luce said.


Vermont has been a national leader in investments that reduce consumption of electricity, but when it comes to increasing the efficiency of homes, the pace needs to quicken significantly to save Vermonters money and reduce use of fossil fuels, according to the state’s newly drafted comprehensive energy plan.


The two-volume plan, the first comprehensive road map to Vermont’s energy future that state officials have produced since 1998, envisions reductions in energy consumption through conservation and efficiency as critical initial actions the state must take to achieve the plan’s bold goal.


“We intend to set Vermont on a path to attain 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by mid-century.” Currently, only 23 percent of the energy Vermonters use for electricity, for heat and for transportation comes from renewable sources.


The broad strategies to achieve the goal would include:

• Enhanced efficiency.


• Greater use of clean, renewable energy sources for electricity, heating and transportation.


• Electric vehicle adoption.


• Use of natural gas and biofuel blends where nonrenewable fuels remain necessary.


The plan advises “deliberate and measured” steps that take into consideration the need “to ensure overall energy costs for our businesses and residents remain regionally competitive.”


“It is good for the state to move toward a fossil-free future,” said Elizabeth Miller, commissioner of the Department of Public Service. Her department wrote the plan. “Incremental progress is the key,” she said. “You go deliberately over time toward the goal.”


Vermonters have opportunities in the coming weeks to comment on this challenge to give up fossil fuels and the strategies proposed to achieve it. Several hearings have already been held and two more are scheduled next week. The Department of Public Service also will accept comments by email, mail and online through Oct. 10.


Interest groups — fuel dealers, home builders, power companies, consumer advocates, environmentalists — have delved into the plan and found things they like and dislike.


None, however, say they reject the goal.


“Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is a no-brainer,” said Kathy Davis of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Where our concern always is — is not necessarily with the concept, but with the details.”


“This framework really seems to resonate with what Vermonters want,” said Dorothy Schnure, spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power Corp. “I think it’s a good framework. You need to have a plan to have a hope of getting where you want to go.”


Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and got an early look at the plan. “I didn’t have high expectations,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised. It’s way more than an inventory of what we have.


“This is the government’s and the people’s policy saying within 39 years we are going to be off oil. That is huge,” Klein said. “To begin to create the blueprint and begin us walking down the path toward that goal, that is more than just talk.”


Meredith Angwin, director of the energy education project of the Ethan Allen Institute and a supporter of extending the life of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, had the opposite reaction.


She said she had high hopes for the plan after hearing Miller make a presentation about the energy challenges the state faces.


“An excellent summary of the problems, however, is comparatively easy. This is supposed to be the plan for curing the problems. It isn’t,” Angwin said. Where are the details that explain how Vermont could achieve the lofty goals, she asked.


James Moore, clean energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, joined Angwin in wishing to see more concrete strategies.


“We love the vision and leadership that is presented in the plan,” Moore said. “Whether we reach those ambitious goals depends on what we do in the next few years. That is less well-articulated. We need to start on that task now.”


Miller accepted the criticism about insufficient detail.


“It is a fair comment. I think there are a number of concrete action steps in the plan,” she argued. In the final version of the plan, she promised, “I’m going to put them all together.”


Transportation revolution

The biggest challenge the energy plan poses is the call for Vermonters to wean themselves from a transportation system that runs on gasoline and diesel fuel.


“This is going to be the hardest nut to crack,” Klein said.


The plan notes that Vermonters drive more than most other Americans because the state is rural and people like small town, country life. As a result, Vermonters spend about $1 billion a year on gasoline and diesel for transportation, the plan reports. Driving accounts for 47 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.


The plan lists strategies that would get more Vermonters out of their cars — more park-and-ride lots to encourage carpooling and land-use policies that encourage compact development and reduce commutes. It proposes the state continue policies that require more fuel-efficient vehicles with lower emissions.


However, the 90 percent renewable goal won’t be met if Vermonters continue to drive gasoline-fueled cars and trucks, no matter how efficient or how often they carpool.


“A linchpin of the plan is the expected move toward vehicle electrification nationwide,” the plan states. “We must set a course that will allow Vermont to take full advantage of its development.”


Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, applauded the decision to address the transportation challenge.


“It’s not like Vermont is going to push the design” of electric vehicles, Stebbins said, but the plan proposes that “when they have got that vehicle up and ready, we are ready to go.”


Heating our homes

The plan’s other big challenge impacts every Vermonter because it calls for changes in how people heat their homes and businesses.


Vermonters spend about $600 million a year on fossil fuels to heat homes, businesses and other buildings — double the amount paid a decade ago.


Enhancing energy efficiency in buildings is the easiest, cheapest way to reduce this cost, noted Jim Merriam, executive director of Efficiency Vermont. “And it helps reduce the amount of renewables we need to put in to meet the goal.”


The plan notes, however, that efficiency improvements aren’t happening fast enough.


In 2008, the Legislature mandated that 80,000 homes undergo efficiency upgrades by 2020, but so far weatherization programs have reached only 6,700.


What are the obstacles?


Stebbins at Renewable Energy Vermont said many Vermonters don’t realize the benefits of insulating attics and basements and preventing air leaks.


But it’s the cost that really prevents people from undertaking efficiency projects, Stebbins said. “That to me is the real challenge.”


The plan pegs the average cost to complete energy efficiency projects that result in 25 percent savings in fuel expenses at $7,500.


“We have to dig in and solve this problem,” Moore at VPIRG said, noting that in the current economy, “the government’s role is going to be limited.”


The plan suggests “Vermont must identify ways to unlock private financing options and then identify the proper amount and use of a secure, sustainable source of funding tied to the fuels the efficiency measures are addressing.”


Matt Cota, director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, says the plan fails to recognize the efficiencies already achieved through better fuels, better furnaces and better homes.


“We use 30 percent less fuel than we did 30 years ago,” he said. “A lot of that has happened in the competitive environment.”


The plan says the state’s 200-plus heating fuel dealers should be included in the shift away from fossil fuels for heating: “Our intent is to open the opportunity for heating fuel-based businesses to participate in the new energy economy so they are not stranded in the old one in the coming decades.”


Cota noted that many heating oil companies have been around for 100 years, having started out delivering coal and ice. Many see opportunities now to sell biofuels.


Cota welcomed the plan’s recognition that “there is a cleaner, greener future” for fuel dealers.


A contradiction?


Cota said the plan’s support for expanding the availability of natural gas heads the state in the opposite direction from the goal of meeting 90 percent of the state’s energy needs through renewables.


Why encourage investment in pipelines for a fossil fuel when the goal is to wean the state from those fuels, he said.


The plan says natural gas could address two key needs: It would reduce Vermonters’ reliance on overseas oil for heating and it could fill a gap in electric supply.


Angwin, a supporter of Vermont Yankee, said sees the reference to natural gas as a remedy for a future gap in sources of electricity as an admission that closing the nuclear power plant creates a problem.


Angwin noted, too, that renewables such as solar and wind are intermittent sources of power. Natural gas power plants and hydro-electric power are two options that can be turned on quick, she said. “So it is absolutely predictable,” she said, that the state’s energy plan would include natural gas as a future electricity source since the plan assumes the closure of the state’s nuclear power plant.


Commissioner Miller defended the plan’s support for natural gas.


It’s cheaper than heating oil, so it offers homeowners and businesses near pipelines a money-saving option, she said.


It’s available in North America, which has geopolitical and transportation benefits.


It burns cleaner, which results in lower carbon emissions.


“It would be short-sighted of Vermont to not seek to expand gas to get us where we want to go,” Miller said.


Contact Nancy Remsen at 578-5685 or nremsen@burlingtonfreepress.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/nancybfp


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