Spread of solar linked to state energy plan update

MIDDLEBURY — A critical update to Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, due to the Legislature by Jan. 1, offers some provocative numbers that paint an intriguing image of what the Green Mountain State could look like in 35 years.
For instance, to meet the goal for renewable energy generation, as many as 13,000 more acres of solar arrays would have to be raised across the Vermont landscape (that equals about 1 percent of all Vermont land currently in farming or a little less than one-quarter of 1 percent of all land in Vermont).
That number would represent a 13-fold increase in present acreage in solar development statewide, and reflects the amount of acreage needed to generate Vermont’s needs by 2050 — not total acreage that might be used to generate power sold to other states.
With this sort of potential impact on the land, the Addison County Regional Planning Commission invited the head of energy planning in the state to come this month and discuss the 2015 update to the plan, a draft of which circulated this fall.
“The energy plan calls for a significant increase in renewable energy generation within the state of Vermont,” said Adam Lougee, executive director of the regional planning commission. “A lot of the solar projects that we are seeing in Addison County are driven by that energy policy, and I thought it was important for our (regional planning) commissioners to understand, basically, the policy that was driving the activity within the region.”
Vermont currently meets 16 percent of its energy requirements from renewables, according to the draft update to the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan presented to the commission on Dec. 9 by Asa Hopkins, director of Energy Policy and Planning for the Vermont Department of Public Service. The 400-page draft plan, which is built on and updates the state’s 2011 Comprehensive Energy Plan, lays out strategies by which Vermont will meet its goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.
The plan offers several rationales for doing this, including improving energy security and thus boosting the economy, as well as improving air quality. Much of the public focus has been the plan’s goals for reducing production of climate-changing greenhouse gases and improving environmental sustainability. Indeed, the plan calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
To reach the 90 percent renewables by 2050 goal, the plan sets interim goals for the state to:
• Reduce energy consumption per capita by 15 percent by 2025, and by more than one-third by 2050.
• Meet 25 percent of the state’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2025; 40 percent by 2035.
The state’s model for reaching its goals is to reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation, industry and heating, while increasing the use of renewably generated electricity in those same sectors.
The plan suggests three different scenarios for putting together enough power to meet the state’s need for an estimated 9 terawatt hours of renewable electricity in 2050, each with a slightly different mix of fuels sources: solar, wind, methane, biomass and hydropower. In each of the three plans, solar power would see the greatest increase as its proportion of the state’s energy portfolio.
At present, Hopkins said the state had 120 megawatts of solar already built and 75 megawatts in progress, occupying about 1,000 acres across Vermont.
To reach the state’s renewable energy goals, the draft energy plan assumes that the state will need to generate 500-750 megawatts of solar power by 2032. As laid out by the plan, this would mean 200-250 megawatts’ worth of arrays would be installed on buildings and the remaining 300-500 megawatts would occupy 2,000-3,500 acres.
To reach 1,500-2,250 megawatts of solar in 2050, the plan assumes that the state would have 350 megawatts of solar installed on buildings and up to 1,900 megawatts across 13,000 acres. According to the Department of Public Service plan, that would mean adding roughly 200 to 350 acres of solar a year, over 35 years.
Hopkins says there is discussion of creating incentives to place solar arrays on buildings rather than on open land, and to place arrays on “brown fields” — parking lots and places that are already disturbed or developed — rather than on “green fields” — open land that has agricultural or scenic value. But at present, that is discussion and not policy.
PERCENT OF TOTAL ACRES
How much of Vermont does the Department of Public Service want to cover in solar panels? Hopkins noted that Vermont covers roughly 5.9 million acres. Of that total, about 3,650 are in commercial buildings, 43,200 acres are in roads, and around 1.3 million acres are in “prime ag” and “statewide” soils.
The state’s new Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for 13 times the present amount of solar panels and would increase the percentage of the state’s acreage dedicated to solar from 0.017 percent to 0.22 percent.
“We (the ACRPC) think renewable generation is important, and we’ve generally supported it, but we want to make sure that we as a state are doing our best to do it right, to fit it within the Vermont landscape and to try to have it benefit as many Vermonters as we can,” said Lougee. “The state has a lot of control over the incentives that it gives, and we’d like to see those incentives broadly based go to Vermonters.”
Lougee continued, “We want them to be conscious of and protect the Vermont landscape, so we do believe that siting is absolutely important. And we think that smaller scale and net-metered systems or community solar systems tend to have more benefits to Vermonters.”
Lougee explained that by “smaller scale” he meant projects of 15 kilowatts and smaller.
“If we can get those two things right, we can both protect the landscape and benefit more Vermont citizens,” he said.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

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