State unveils new energy plan

MIDDLEBURY — “I believe there is no greater challenge and opportunity to Vermont and our world than the challenge to change the way we use and produce energy,” wrote Gov. Peter Shumlin in the first sentence of the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan draft.
When Shumlin appointed Elizabeth Miller to be commissioner of the Department of Public Service (DPS) early this year, she was charged with the task of overseeing the development and completion of a new comprehensive energy plan by the end of 2011 — the first update to the energy plan since 1998.
Over the past several months, Miller and her team have created a draft roughly 400 pages in length to help guide Vermont’s energy future. Aiming to reduce Vermont’s fossil fuel dependence, secure energy resources, protect the environment and create jobs, the plan draft focuses on three energy spheres: electricity, heat and transportation.
The DPS is presently seeking public input on the plan until Oct. 10. In order to gather people’s concerns, insights and recommendations, the department is accepting comments online (at www.vtenergyplan.vermont.gov/comment) and at five public hearings across the state. The first of those hearings was on Tuesday night at Middlebury Union High School.
Commissioner Miller kicked off the meeting by outlining Vermont’s current energy situation and how it can proceed from here. She explained that 37 percent of Vermont’s total energy is used for commercial and industrial purposes, 29 percent is used by the residential sector and 33 percent is consumed by transportation, which runs almost solely on petroleum. The number of miles traveled by Vermonters has skyrocketed over the past three decades, and transportation represents the largest energy cost to Vermonters, consumes the most fossil fuels of any sector and is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases.
 Since 1960, said Miller, Vermont’s annual energy use has more than doubled from about 65 trillion British thermal units (BTUs) to more than 160 trillion BTUs. The largest increases were in the transportation and electricity spheres. Over the past 20 years, however, average electricity rates haven’t increased by more than a penny per kWh when inflation is taken into account.
By improving education and outreach on energy issues and programs, expanding finance and funding opportunities, attracting energy innovators and experts, and putting certain regulatory policies in place, the plan aims to drive Vermont toward a renewable energy future.
According to DPS calculations, 23 percent of Vermont’s current energy use comes from renewable sources of energy. The draft plan sets a goal that by 2050 some 90 percent of the state’s total energy will come from renewable sources like solar, wind, biomass and hydro. In the meantime, natural gas will likely play a crucial role in providing Vermonters with affordable heat.
Along the course of energy reform, Miller said she wants to make sure fossil fuel dealers aren’t stranded. For instance, companies that provide fuel for heating homes will still play a vital role in a renewable energy infrastructure by providing other services.
In order to keep up with progress, Miller would like to see the plan revised every three years.
“I think what was a roadblock to getting a new plan completed between 1998 and today is that the world changes. Even in the last three months while we’ve been drafting this (document) things have been moving forward and changing,” she said in am interview with the Independent.
“It’s really hard to hit a stopping point with a plan and just put it on a shelf. That’s not what you want to do … what you want is some process to continue it. I think unless you set a shorter deadline for updates it’s hard to keep up that momentum … I think there needs to be some consideration on how you keep the plan a more living document, so the state doesn’t find itself in this same situation 12 years from now.”
After Oct. 10, the DPS will review public comments, make necessary revisions and submit the plan to Shumlin by mid October. The governor will then make revisions and send it back to Miller and the DPS.
“Our plan is to have it buttoned up and done in November,” Miller said at Tuesday’s hearing. “We really want to have this rolled out for Vermonters and ready for the next legislative season so that we can start making progress.”
Since the plan transcends department and agency boundaries, the executive branch’s climate cabinet will be responsible for oversight and implementation of the document.
After Miller finished summarizing the plan, she answered questions from the public. Although few people were in attendance, a wide range of comments and concerns were voiced:
•  Mount Abraham Union High School physics teacher Tom Tailer said he wants to ensure woody biomass is used for heating homes. Electricity, he said, is an inefficient use for biomass. He’d like Vermont’s biomass resources to be used within the state to benefit Vermonters that need heat and maximize energy efficiency by reducing the distance that the resources travel. He recommends a woody biomass pellet cooperative where local residents own the pellet industry.
On Wednesday, Miller told the Independent that Tailer’s concerns and plan might be better addressed by the Biomass Energy Development Working Group — a committee appointed by the Legislature — than by the DPS.
•  Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington voiced concern about language in the plan used to make regional and town planning commissions conform to the plan. Miller agreed with Dunnington.
 “I think he’s right about the way the plan discusses conformity is too nebulous and not proactive enough with regard to what would actually occur,” she said.
•  Mark Boivin of Vermont Golden Harvest Biofuels in Addison — a producer of corn for fuel — wanted language added to the plan about energy and infrastructure degradation from hauling fuels long distances.
•  Middlebury environmental activist Laura Asermily said she wants natural gas to be made more transparent and better regulated.
When Steve Wark, director of communications for Vermont Gas Systems and a former DPS deputy commissioner, was asked where the utility’s gas comes from, he replied Alberta, Canada. Tailer asked if the gas comes from fracking — a way of extracting natural gas that’s often criticized for being environmentally detrimental.
“I can’t say 100 percent that it’s not fracked because the way the hubs are set up these days there is fracked gas that comes from many different locations,” said Wark. “I can’t say it’s certified frack-free gas. It’s not like fair trade coffee.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com

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