The Vermont Legislature this year passed Act 56 to establish a renewable portfolio standard and prod the state toward an ambitious goal of becoming 90 percent renewable by 2050.
In the following interview, Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Dave Hallquist explains why Vermont’s green energy agenda appears to be dead on arrival in the northern part of the state.
Vermont Watchdog: Is it possible for Vermont to achieve a goal of being 90 percent renewable by 2050?
Dave Hallquist: It’s a nice goal, but physics of today say you can’t achieve it.
VW: What makes the goal unachievable?
Hallquist: Unless we get cost-effective storage, we can’t meet those goals — it’s a law of physics. The reason is because we’re trying to meet 100 percent of our annual energy needs with these projects that produce only 15 percent of the time. So you end up having to build six times the amount, and you end up having more generation than load, so there’s nothing you can do about it. We can’t meet our goals with the current physics.
VW: The renewable energy build-out appears to have stalled in the northern part of the state — Vermont Electric Coop’s service area. What’s going on up there?
Hallquist: The entire transmission grid in northern Vermont is maxed out now.
VW: What does that mean in layman’s terms?
Hallquist: Think of a transmission line as an extension cord. The whole northern grid is like one big extension cord that you can’t hang anything else off of because it’s basically full. So if you want to turn something on, you gotta turn something off.
VW: Are you saying there’s no room for any more renewable energy projects in northern Vermont?
Hallquist: If it’s a one or two-megawatt project here or there, we could probably absorb it. But if it starts getting over five-megawatts, now we have problems. When you’re full, you’re full. Once you’re full, it doesn’t matter what the project is.
VW: Ranger Solar is planning 20-megawatt solar plants on more than 650 acres in Sheldon, Barton and Highgate — your territory. What’s the future for those solar projects?
Hallquist: Those projects are just so big that there’s no way you can fit them. When you’re talking 20-megawatt projects, there is no room anywhere for them in our grid.
VW: How long do you expect this grid congestion to last?
Hallquist: It’s going to be 15 to 20 years because these projects are planned to run 20-plus years.
VW: Does Vermont Electric Cooperative plan to build new transmission infrastructure?
Hallquist: We’re not going to make our ratepayers pay for that. Essentially that would mean our members would have to pay for other people to make money, and that’s not happening. We are not going to build additional transmission because all that’s going to do is drive up rates.
VW: What do you propose as a fix to the grid problem?
Hallquist: We’re proposing that the state should put incentives to put projects where they’re needed and disincentives for where they’re not needed. There’s a lot of capacity from Chittenden County going south. However, if everybody accepts my premise, and we stop building in northern Vermont and we start building where the load is, well, now you run into siting issues.
VW: Could the same congestion happen with other utility companies serving other parts of the state?
Hallquist: I predict it’s likely to happen if we don’t do something because ultimately there is a physical limit about how much our system can take. It just happens to be Vermont Electric Coop is the first utility in the state to experience this. Green Mountain Power could potentially face the same problems. These large solar projects eat up capacity fairly quickly. I think we’re all opposed to those large 20-megawatt solar projects. I haven’t found anybody that supports them.
VW: What are developers going to do if they can’t can’t connect to the grid? Can they build power lines to fix the problem?
Hallquist: It costs a lot of money to fix it. The developer could build, but they would have to spend millions of dollars on transmission upgrades for a couple-million-dollar project. So it just makes it economically not feasible. (If they are built), what we’re doing is we’re making the grid less efficient by building more transmission lines, because right now we use the transmission lines 50 percent of the time, but solar uses it only 15 percent of the time.
VW: Why are so many developers trying to build renewable energy plants in the northern part of the state?
Hallquist: Our area has been very attractive to solar developers because we have a lot of land. So, the gold rush has been focused on northern Vermont. The result is — no more room.
VW: What if the state approves new projects for northern Vermont?
Hallquist: By putting these in the northern part of Vermont, any generation will likely require us to back off other renewable generation. So you get this perverse situation where you have a 200-plus acre solar field and it’s not going to necessarily increase the renewables of Vermont or New England, because we would have to back off other sources, such as Hydro-Quebec, Sheffield Wind, or Kingdom Community Wind — because that interface is now completely full in terms of the amount of generation it can handle.
VW: What do you think of the state’s energy goals, in light of the real physical limitations of the grid?
Hallquist: It’s nice to have those goals. We’re building a plan on hope — we’re hoping that cost-effective energy storage solutions come soon. But physics say we can’t achieve those goals with what we know today.
VW: How might this affect Vermont’s 2015 Comprehensive Energy Plan, which has to be approved by Jan. 1?
Hallquist: We don’t write the plans. If it makes electrons we love it, and we’ll build anything you want us to build. But remember there are costs. I would be irresponsible as the CEO of Vermont Electric Coop if I ignored cost. We have the highest percentage of low-income people in the state on our system. I have an obligation as a CEO to be concerned about rates.
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]