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New initiative seeks public’s help in boosting renewable energy policies in Vermont

“The technologies that are part of a clean energy economy are changing in a hurry and new ones are being introduced, so with all that change its helpful for the Public Service Department to reach out to the public and ask them about all the changes that are going on and what they see for the state’s energy future."
— Sen. Christopher Bray

VERMONT — Throughout this year, Vermonters will get a few chances to weigh in on the future of the state’s energy policies. The Public Service Department this month kicked off a series of public engagement opportunities as part of it’s ongoing review of Vermont’s renewable and clean electricity policies.

Residents are invited to take part in educational opportunities, interactive workshops and other engagement options as the department conducts its review. Feedback will guide the department in its consideration of comprehensive adjustments to Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard and other related policies and programs.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Bristol, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said the initiative is intended to get more Vermonters involved in deciding the state’s energy policies.

“This program is designed to expand the amount of public engagement and outreach,” he said. “(The Public Service Department) wants to engage the broader general public, so they’re taking a new approach and it kind of expands the scope of the conversation.”

The Public Service Department is an agency within the executive branch of Vermont’s state government and is tasked with representing the public’s interest on issues regarding energy, telecommunications, water and wastewater. The department’s work includes providing long-range planning for Vermont’s energy needs through the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, which is prepared by the department and provides recommendations for meeting the state’s energy goals.

One of the recommendations outlined in the department’s 2022 Comprehensive Energy Plan is the consideration of adjustments to Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard and related renewable energy programs. This past December, the department released a public engagement plan to guide the department in its review of Vermont’s renewable electricity policies. The engagement process consists of three phases, which will unfold throughout this year and wrap up in December.

Bray said the initiative gives the department an opportunity to check in with Vermonters amidst all the changes that are part of transitioning to a cleaner energy future.

“The technologies that are part of a clean energy economy are changing in a hurry and new ones are being introduced, so with all that change its helpful for the Public Service Department to reach out to the public and ask them about all the changes that are going on and what they see for the state’s energy future,” he said.

WEBINAR SERIES

The first phase of the engagement plan focuses on awareness and education and includes a webinar series on Vermont’s current electric system and renewable electricity policies, which just kicked off.

During the first round of webinars, the department discussed where Vermont’s electricity comes from. The webinar was led by TJ Poor, the department’s director of planning, and other members of the Public Service Department.

“This webinar and webinar series is intended to ground you all, attendees, in basic information on Vermont’s electricity from multiple vantage points,” Poor said during the department’s Feb. 2 webinar.

Throughout the next hour and a half, Poor highlighted the basic components of the state’s electric system and what circumstances determine where the electricity that powers our homes and businesses comes from.

Poor noted that in 2021, generators based in Vermont produced over 1.9 million megawatt hours of electricity; 99.8% of that electricity came from sources that are considered renewable under existing Vermont policy, such as hydropower, solar and wind generation.

However, electricity generated in Vermont makes up only 33% of what’s needed to meet customer needs. Poor explained that is partially because not all of the electricity generated in Vermont is used by or sold to the state’s utilities. In 2021, Vermont utilities purchased over 5.8 million megawatts of electricity to help meet customer demand; 64% of that electricity came from resources Vermont policy considers renewable.

Poor explained that existing state policy requires utilities to undertake least-cost planning when deciding what power to generate or buy in order to meet customers’ needs. That planning means that Vermont utilities must meet their customers’ needs at the least cost while considering a set of criteria.

That criteria includes adequacy of the electricity, reliability, and sustainability and environmental soundness.

“These are really the issues and the criteria that utilities need to consider, and the state needs to consider and balance as we think about our electricity supply now and going forward,” Poor said.

The first round of webinars also addressed how renewable energy credits factor into the renewability of Vermont’s electricity. Renewable energy certificates, or RECs, represent the environmental attributes of electricity generated by a renewable source, where one REC is equivalent to one megawatt hour of electricity produced by a renewable source.

“These renewable energy certificates are the mechanism that states throughout New England use to measure compliance toward their renewable electricity requirements,” Poor explained.

In 2021, Vermont distribution utilities retired over 4 million renewable energy certificates in order to meet the obligations outlined in the Vermont Renewable Energy Standard. Those RECs accounted for 71% of Vermont’s electricity that year.

FUTURE ENGAGEMENT

The Public Service Department will hold two additional rounds of webinars to cover the topics of:

  • Vermont’s current renewable electricity policies on Tuesday, Feb. 14, from 12 noon to 1:30 p.m. and Wednesday, Feb. 15, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
  • A “parking lot session” to cover additional questions on Monday, March 13 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday, March 15 from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Registration for upcoming webinars and recordings of previous webinars can be found at publicservice.vermont.gov/renewables.

Future phases of the department’s engagement process are expected to include other opportunities for public participation, including interactive workshops, surveys and polling. The department will continue its review of current energy policies through this year, and in the final phase of the initiative (expected to take place September through December) will finalize and draft its recommendations ahead of the 2024 legislative session.

The department is expected to consider adjustments to Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard and related renewable energy programs that include moving toward 100% renewable.

Lawmakers are also considering such an adjustment. Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, is expected to sponsor a bill that would raise the bar on the state’s renewable energy standard to reliance on 100% renewable energy sources by 2030.

Bray said he supports that adjustment to the state’s renewable energy standard. Currently, the standard requires reliance on 75% renewable energy sources by 2032.

“From an equity standpoint, there is no other program I know of that can deliver renewable energy to every Vermonter,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re relying on individual initiatives like net metering. Net metering is a costly investment, so not everyone can make it and it also leaves out the 30% of Vermonters that are renters.”

Bray noted there is much to keep in mind when considering the shift toward a cleaner energy future, such as ensuring Vermont’s infrastructure can support increases in electricity needs as energy sectors move toward electrification.

“We will have to make investments over time to keep the grid up to snuff to do the job it needs to do. Right now, we have at least a decade’s worth of headroom in the system, but it takes time to build infrastructure, we need to be looking 10-15 years out,” he said.

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