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Adoption of Renewable Energy Requires Realistic Timeline

At Vermont Electric Cooperative, we are closely watching activity in Montpelier as legislators work to establish renewable energy goals for the future.  At VEC, we sit at the intersection where policy meets the ratepayer and we are concerned that legislators are overlooking limitations of today’s electric grid. A very real issue is that the grid is not designed to handle large amounts of wind and solar without cost-effective battery storage to address the intermittent nature of these resources. Establishing aggressive goals for the adoption of such resources may have unintended financial and environmental consequences.

To understand this better, imagine Vermont’s power portfolio of the future. Current legislative proposals would limit non-renewable energy sources like natural gas or nuclear power to 20%. Vermont’s new Hydro-Quebec contract would add about 25% to the mix, which is about a quarter less than the current contract. Biomass, a continuous generation and renewable energy source could add about 15% to the portfolio, but woody biomass generation is limited by availability of low-grade wood. The remaining 40% of power needed would most likely come from ridgeline wind and solar – the intermittent renewables.

As higher renewable energy goals are achieved, the electric grid will interconnect with an unprecedented level of these intermittent wind and solar resources. Unlike power generators that provide a steady flow of electricity, such as Hydro Quebec, nuclear or natural gas plants, intermittent generation sources aren’t always available when needed. Conversely, there are times when electricity demand is low and surplus power from these sources will be wasted due to the lack of a storage mechanism, like a battery, to save the unused power.

Concerns are emerging that the grid may not run reliably with significant levels of intermittent power (around 20% or more), unless there is a way to store electricity so that it can be used at times when it is needed.

And, therein lies the rub. Cost effective energy storage solutions do not exist today, nor are they seen on the near horizon. If we move to adopt high levels of renewable energy before cost effective energy storage options become available, Vermonters may face significantly higher electric rates and unintended environmental consequences like excessive levels of ridgeline wind development.

VEC is not alone in recognizing the importance of understanding energy storage issues when developing renewable energy standards. In early February, the United States Department of Energy announced the establishment of the Batteries and Storage Innovation Hub to accelerate research and development in the transportation sector and electric grid. Project funding of $120 million over a five year period underscores just how critical it is to develop effective energy storage solutions. While there are many programs available today to fund renewable energy production, far fewer exist to encourage the development of energy storage.

If existing battery technology was used to store excess intermittent power today, VEC estimates that the cost for these sources of energy would increase by an additional 23 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy stored. A power portfolio incorporating high levels of wind and solar, as described above, could cause the typical residential monthly cost for 500 kWh of electricity to rise from about $80 to a level between $120 and $155 due to the high costs of energy storage.

Transitioning to a greener power portfolio is a complex and important challenge for many reasons. Overlooking the implications of technology limitations may result in unintended consequences. It is critical that policy makers include the expertise and knowledge of Vermont’s electric utilities in the conversation as new legislation is developed. The risks are too high to Vermonters to create policy based on the hope that an energy storage solution will emerge in the nick of time.

VEC recommends the following:

  • Reassess the timeline and pace for adoption of renewable energy considering today’s lack of cost effective energy storage solutions;
  • Utilize non-renewable energy sources like natural gas or nuclear energy more fully as transition fuels as we move to a greener portfolio;  
  • Encourage development of storage solutions, including use of electric vehicles, as battery storage mechanisms;
  • Establish 20+ year Blue Ribbon Panel of Vermont’s leading energy experts to advise and support the implementation of sound energy policy.

When it comes to energy, there are few easy answers. Vermont Electric Cooperative is committed to sharing our knowledge and expertise with fellow Vermonters as we move to a greener portfolio. Please keep abreast of energy issues and share your thoughts with your representatives in Montpelier and Washington.



#2 David Hallquist 2013-04-09 20:20
I would not say VEC is suspending participation in future projects. we had not planned any, as we have enough to meet our SPEED goals. That said, we are very sensitive to where new projects are located, as we do not want them to negatively impact our existing projects. The Seneca Mountain Wind project is located within the same load zone as VEC's projects.

The two situations you described are the type that cause problems with the grid. There are also other situations, such as when New England does not have enough spinning reserve.

We believe we will solve these problems with our existing projects, although it will take some time.
#1 Richard Pecor 2013-04-09 14:40
As a follow-up to this post, you are quoted in VtDigger as being so concerned about "grid instability" that you are suspending VEC's participation in large wind deployments. Are you saying that the very intermittent nature of wind makes the real possibility that it will drop precipitously and leave demand with less generation causing frequency and voltage fluctuations? I assume that the same outcomes might occur if the turbine hit max wind speed and dropped off the grid?
Regards, Dick Pecor

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