Blittersdorf discusses our energy future
Vermont born and bred entrepreneur David Blittersdorf is lighting up the renewable energy industry and building a solar platform to track the future.
After founding NRG Systems — a maker of wind measurement technology that serves the wind energy industry — in Bristol in 1982, Blittersdorf went on to form the solar and wind energy company AllEarth Renewables in Williston in 2009. As president and CEO, he has helped spark Vermont’s solar energy development by installing approximately 450 solar trackers across the state and more than 30 in Addison County.
On April 30, Blittersdorf talked energy with the Independentat Starksboro’s Common Ground Center, illuminating the current and future state of renewable technologies in Vermont.
Which renewable energy technologies are most appropriate for Vermont?
After spending 30 years in the wind business, as the founder of NRG Systems — developing windmill equipment and traveling around the world measuring wind energy — I believe that Vermont has limited wind resources. The wind resources that it does have are up on the ridges, but people don’t live there. So, for residential power, solar is probably the preferred solution.
Solar is better for a couple of reasons: Theincentives (from government and industries) are better, the policies are better and the resource is distributed across the state. As long as you don’t have trees, you can go almost anywhere.
Wind is very site specific. Here in Starksboro, there are not a lot of wind resources for a small wind turbine. Only on the mountains around us can we put turbines. We figured out that 99 percent of Vermonters couldn’t do small wind, but 90 percent could do solar.
What are some new developments on the horizon for the wind and solar industries?
Wind and solar are both very mature industries. We’ve gotten through the learning curve over the past 30 years. So, there’s not going to be big changes in technology. The technology works.
What we’re going to see is probably a 3- to 5-percent decrease in cost going forward. But, the biggest things that drive these industries are incentives from national and state policies.
Right now there are a handful of states that are doing a lot of solar, but the rest of the states don’t have the policies to drive solar — they don’t have the right incentives, subsidies basically. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are highly subsidized. We need a level playing field. We need subsidies to make it all work. But right now there are no national policies from the feds that say renewable energy technologies are where we want to go.
What are the main obstacles confronting renewable energy development in Vermont and the U.S., and how might you go about hurdling them?
Vermont actually has one of the best ways to permit wind and solar because it’s done at the state level, it’s not done by town zoning. So we don’t have to deal with every town zoning board to permit. It’s really simple and fast — it’s 45 days. Zoning permits elsewhere typically take anywhere from a few months to a year.
We looked at other wind markets across the U.S., and there are 35,000 different zoning districts, and every one of them has different rules. We feel the market for small wind is very small compared to solar due to this web of zoning regulations. The only way to fix the situation is to do it at the national level, and make it so that you don’t have to go through all the conditional use and variances and the time and money it requires to deal with town-by-town regulations across the U.S.
If the Vermont Yankee (VY) nuclear power plant shuts down next year, what is a viable energy solution for the future of Vermont?
We have to switch to renewables. The problem with extending VY’s license is that no one will move to renewables if you crawl back to VY.
Utilities have been dragging their feet switching to renewables, but now they’re finally moving. Green Mountain Power is moving to renewables really quickly because they see the writing on the wall. But, they were always hoping that they didn’t have to do anything — that VY was just going to take care of it. But, it’s a dangerous plant … it’s the same reactor design and containment as the ones melting down in Japan. What the heck are they doing even thinking about running this any longer?
So, we’re going to see utilities moving to more wind farms and more solar.
What about geothermal heat pumps?
Right now, Vermont uses over half its energy to heat our homes. We’re going to have to use wood pellets and use ground-source heat pumping.
Ground source heat pumping requires electricity, so we need renewable sources like wind farms and solar to do that. It’s all integrated. The future is in those types of methods.
What do you think about H.56 (the Energy Act, which just passed the House and Senate last week)?
It has tremendous support. It’s not a revolutionary change, but it’s going to fix a lot of things.
Next year, once the state has an energy plan from the new governor, we’re going to have some major changes to stimulate the renewable energy industry like standard offer contracts (which establish default prices for various technologies).
It’s just one thing at a time. But this is a good bill.
As you understand it, what specifically will this bill do?
It will make it so that every utility will give you the value of 20 cents per excess kilowatt-hour of solar produced. It will allow groups to net meter (receive credit for excess power) up to a higher level — 500 kW instead of 250 kW. It will fix the administration of group net metering so that it’s a way of sharing power because right now utilities have some methods that are really hard to deal with. It’s fixing a lot of things so that solar is a lot easier to do.
Also, if your solar system net meters less than 5 kW on a home roof or a tracker, there will be no permits necessary. Instead, there’s a registration just like with your car. You don’t permit your car. If you wanted a permit for an SUV, you probably wouldn’t be allowed to buy it. Look at the environmental impact — gas consumption and pollution. If you actually permit an SUV like you have to permit wind turbines or solar, it wouldn’t happen.
So, the government is streamlining solar installation by just allowing registration. Ten days after registering, you can put in the tracker — there’s no hearings, no permits, no nothings. So that saves you time and money.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]
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