By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
When environmentalist lawmakers and advocates meet to discuss the benefits of renewable energy mandates, one would assume attendees believe in the superior benefits of renewable energy.
But as the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy began taking testimony last week on a bill that would set renewable portfolio standards for electric utilities, it was hard to know whether committee members were for or against renewable energy.
“If anyone thinks the policies that encourage renewable energy are working well for our communities, spend a little time talking to me, and I can tell you story after story of how badly it’s going,” Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said to members of the committee.
At issue is H.40, a bill requiring electric companies to ensure 55 percent of their energy sales come from renewable sources in 2017. By 2032, they would be required by law to show 75 percent of their sales came from such sources.
The impetus for the bill is a study from the Public Service Department that shows Vermont is behind on its goal to reach 90 percent renewable energy consumption by 2050.
Smith, who supports green energy for Vermont, expressed numerous criticisms about the way renewable policies were being implemented, beginning with the sale of renewable energy credits, or RECs.
“Vermonters want renewable energy, but it costs more. We have to make that more honest. This REC selling is really ruining our state’s reputation. I recommend adding language requiring full disclosure of ownership of renewable energy credits and all promotional materials. …It’s all too hidden. …There is no transparency around wind and solar,” she said.
Buying renewable-energy credits allows an individual or business to financially subsidize the renewable energy industry even when green energy is not available locally. Businesses or individuals who consume electricity generated from coal or natural gas, for example, can buy RECs and receive credit as if they were using energy based from wind, solar and other renewables.
The sale of RECs is controversial because there is little transparency about the validity of their sources, and because various middlemen can facilitate their sale without benefitting solar and wind producers.
“I only recently found out that SunCommon, for their community solar projects, they’re selling the RECs. But they’re not necessarily forthcoming about it. You have to know enough about it to ask,” Smith said.
“I would recommend this bill add language requiring anyone to have full disclosure about the RECs — whatever materials are used, so there is a clear and honest report on whether it’s utilities websites, whether it’s solar websites, whether it’s wind developers websites … that disposition of RECs is clear, transparent and honest.”
As committee members weighed in on the bill, state Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, questioned the reliability of renewable energy generation.
“Ferrisburgh has the megawatt solar farm, one of the first ones, 1,000 kilowatts. They got a website, and out of the thousand kilowatts, right now it’s producing around 11 kilowatts. So, it’s a sunny day, but if you live in Vermont (there’s) snow. There’s a graphic example of solar’s limitations in Vermont. Snow is huge,” Van Wyck said.
Smith echoed his concern.
“I was on one site visit with a developer who was asked what about winter? He said, ‘Oh, we just don’t factor it in between December and February, because we don’t expect to get any (sun).’ …This developer made clear that his cash flow worked without it. That was the most clear, direct, honest thing I heard,” she said.
At one point in the hearings, state Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, a renewable energy advocate and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, conceded renewable energy doesn’t generate profits on its own.
“In this world, they don’t make any money on the sale of this product. … It’s not how they make their money. And unlike any other industry, the more people use, the more expensive it gets. Because the more people use, the more we have to call in more expensive generation sources to satisfy it,” Klein said.
According to Klein, H.40 attempts to solve the problem by controlling the entire process of how energy is sold and consumed.
“I look at Tier 3 as the only piece of the bill that everyday Vermonters have the opportunity to benefit from, because we finally created a vehicle to overcome the barrier that has not allowed middle income Vermonters to be able to, in one location, one-stop shop. (They could) get their house weatherized, maybe get rid of an outdated fossil-fuel heat source, and maybe generate their own electricity on their house and have one entity coordinate it — and have one place for it to be on the bill, and in many cases have that one payment be less than what they were paying before,” he said.
“That to me is the exciting part of Tier 3. It gives us a vehicle to use a regulated world to accomplish something we haven’t been able to accomplish because it required a whole bunch of money.”
Smith had other objections to Vermont’s policy, particularly on the issue of siting.
“A lot of people are really upset about what’s happening with our landscape with solar. …You can’t do anything about it from a community perspective because the Public Service Board gives due consideration to town plans. They are not looking at the zoning part for the clear written community standard, which Act 250 always did. So they’re misapplying the law and don’t know what they’re doing,” she said.
She said poor siting was harming property values.
“The first thing people say about the solar when it’s literally plunked down in their back yard or front yard is, ‘What about our property values?’ I can tell you, cumulatively, over time, this is going to degrade our state’s Grand List. There’s no question. We’re seeing it with the wind issue. …There’s tons of property out there that’s not selling. How much more can this state afford to do with bad siting?” she asked.
While many communities have expressed frustrations over siting, Smith said Vermonters have no way to provide input.
“If you hire a lawyer and experts, you will spend a lot of money … and you will lose. …You will be treated badly, and you will lose. The Public Service Board is, in every case, saying the Legislature has told us to approve solar, and so that’s what we’re going to do.”
The rubber stamping of renewable projects raises issues of favoritism — especially since Act 250 sets impossibly high standards for most land use. Smith said renewable energy developers get a free pass on Act 250 regulations.
“Right now, what we have is a completely different set of standards for Act 250 than for renewable energy. (In Act 250), you can’t do the stuff on prime ag soil that’s happening right now with renewable energy,” Smith said.
She recalled a discussion at a recent conference, in which non-energy developers complained they couldn’t operate in Vermont due to onerous regulations.
“I was kind of entertained to be in a room with all these developers who were very upset about Act 250. And I’m thinking, boy if they knew what you could get away with in renewable energy development, you would just switch businesses, because that’s where you can do pretty much anything — prime ag soils, wetlands, you name it, flood hazard zones, cut forests,” Smith said.
She added that Vermont has reached a point where the state needs a professional board to look at all land use.
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]