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What Minnesota can learn from Vermont's renewable-energy plans

Gov. Peter Shumlin
vermont.gov
Gov. Peter Shumlin

Vermont may one day be known for more than its glorious autumns. Gov. Peter Shumlin just announced that he would like to see Vermont generate 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

I recently wrote about Germany's plan to get 85 percent of its electricity from renewables in the same timeframe. Germans are working with Minnesotans to share goals, knowledge and technology designed to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Minnesota has set goals, but nothing like Vermont or Germany.

Shumlin worked closely with Vermont's Public Service Commissioner, Elizabeth Miller, in designing the plan. Like Germany, Shumlin hopes to end Vermont's reliance on nuclear power, and rely on more natural gas-fueled power plants until renewables can take over.

The plan lifts a moratorium on the use of state land for renewable energy projects. It calls for more biomass fuels from wood pellets, corn and other crops grown to be burned as a heat source.

There are critics who warn that shutting down low-emission nuclear reactors and switching to natural gas-fired plants will increase greenhouse gas emissions. To reach the 90 percent goal, Shumlin and Miller intend to designate renewable status to imported hydroelectric power currently being imported from Canada. Critics of that plan argue it could slow the growth of other renewable technologies while continuing to operate on imported sources of electricity.

Conservation and efficiency is a large part of Shumlin's plan. Vermont already ranks at the top in the United States in both of those areas. I spoke to a number of Minnesota legislators who were part of the German exchange, and representatives of both parties came away impressed with a conservation-efficiency approach.

Conservation and savings
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, told me: "Conservation and efficiency doesn't mean you have to change your life. If we conserve and are more efficient, on a large scale, we might not have to build a new power plant down the line. We have to pay dollar-for-dollar for those plants, so we will see savings that way."

Dibble, who serves on the Minnesota Senate's Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, said, "We've also got to figure out a way to reward energy companies who create efficiencies, rather than punish them for not selling as much electricity as they once did."

State Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, told me: "I'm a conservationist. Conservation and efficiency is a key, and a step in the right direction.

"I don't think that is a Republican or Democrat issue," Hackbarth added.

One of the pathways to an energy efficient future, according to state Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, is incentives. Howe is opposed to subsidies, in general. But he says an economy of scale can be built if consumer demand drives business.

"I think we need to invest more in solar and geothermal in Minnesota, and incentivize that – but, we should subsidize the consumer at the retail level," he said.

Howe told me he learned that lesson from his time in the retail business. He worked for Sears at the time Energy Star appliances began making their appearance. Discounts were given to people who bought energy-efficient refrigerators, stoves and furnaces.

"Businesses got that," Howe said. "Now, it is hard to find a product that isn't energy efficient."

Independence and jobs
Vermont's governor said in a statement: "Vermont needs to move forward to protect our environment, gain greater energy independence and drive innovation and jobs in the energy sector."

I have found no legislators, on either side of the aisle, who would disagree with that statement.

Whether Vermont can achieve its goal is anybody's guess. Minnesota is on pace to reach its announced goals of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025, but there was talk in the last session of plans to weaken the renewable energy standard. It didn't happen.

Minnesotans chafe at the idea that another state might be doing something better than we are. It drives our politics and public policy. There is something in us that needs to be "above average." Our goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025 was once the most aggressive in the nation. 

If Vermont approves its governor's plan, and it survives the politics of the moment, it will be hard to top the Green Mountain State. But I suspect that in coming sessions, somebody in the Legislature is going to try.

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Comments (23)

We have all learned to live with plentiful supplies of electric power. Turn on the switch and there will be power available. Traditional (many of them coal fired) generators have the ability to provide this level of service, but most of the new renewable supplies do not. The new devices generate at times and produce nothing at other times. Storage has been held out as a big savior - but is it really. Most storage systems used for electricity return on average about 70% of what is put into storage. Some are a lot worse...

Power system efficiency in the US has fallen significantly in the last 30 years. The electricity delivered to users is about 30% of the primary inputs. The value lost to efficiency is enormous. It is difficult to justify increased waste and loss to feed an uncontrolled demand.

This uncontrolled demand is now causing real problems. There are instances, where night loads are falling and daytime peaks are increasing, the utility has an issue with night surplus that cannot be sold. On occasions, nuclear generators are backed off and waste steam is discharged as heat into the water sources... Surely there is a better way.

Storage may play a role, one example being the controlled use of electric car chargers, but surely it is time to have a hard look at controlling demand...

Solar and wind combined provide about one quad of the one hundred quads of energy consumed in the US every year. There is nothing of technical substance in this article which shows how an absurd 90% will be reached by so-called renewables. The Prince of Wales recently noted that believers in Britain's failed venture into giant wind farms are relying on "fairy tales". Mr Shelby joins that group.

Storing renewable energy is ridiculously easy, although you have to be willing to think outside the box and see what ideas other people and countries are proposing.

For solar you can create an array of mirrors and train them on a tower. This concentrates the heat, which can be used to melt ordinary salt. The salt stays liquid even if a cloud pops up and long after the sun goes down. The salt is then run through a heat exchanger to create steam for running a generator.

The Spanish already have a pilot plant running using the salt method.

With wind just use the mill to pump water. Store the water in a reservoir and run it downhill to turn a traditional hydro electric generator. The reservoir doesn't care if the wind is blowing at any given moment, so you've taken the variances out of the system.

As you can see all you need to do is get some engineers on the problem and they'll come up with some creative solutions without the need for new technology or materials.

This Grist article links to Vermont's actual plan and explains some of the motivation behind it:

http://www.grist.org/energy-policy/2011-12-25-vermonts-energy-secession-...

No matter how many bad things people say about the cost and availability of renewables and how many technical problems must be overcome to develop truly effective storage systems, it has to be done if we don't want to remain dependent on dirty coal (and, worse, tar sands oil) until the earth's supply of fossil fuels has been used up.

The largest US mirror/tower/molten salt project is near the Nevada town of Ivanpah. This 4,000 acre boondoggle project is using a $1.6 billion taxpayer guaranteed loan. More than 300,000 rotating mirrors will focus sunlight on three towers to heat liquid which becomes a source of steam for power generation. Ivanpah’s developer is estimating annual electricity production of about one million megawatt(MW) hours. By comparison, Minnesota’s Prairie Island nuclear plant produces eight times that amount, rain or shine, clouds or fair, night or day. After deducting Ivanpah’s operating costs, such as regular cleaning of all those mirrors from desert dust, the net revenue is unlikely to cover even interest costs on this $2 billion+ fiasco.
Other than a few places where you can use hydro pumped storage, there is NO large scale storage system for intermittent projects like wind and solar. Xcel is testing the world's largest battery - also molten salt. It costs about $5 million and its total storage equals 25 seconds of output from Prairie Island nuclear.
REW

My take on this is that energy – generation, supply, storage, etc. – is the economic and geopolitical issue of the century which has just begun. Without energy, industrial society and the standard of living to which we’ve all become accustomed will not just diminish, they will disappear.

I’m neither scientist nor engineer, so I don’t feel qualified to pass judgment on the various technological alternatives except to say that “renewable” has to be the watchword, and as a society, we ought to become obsessive about it. There’s no realistic alternative to the environment we have on this planet, so it’s in our own best interest, economically, politically, and in terms of health and longevity, to find and use energy sources that do not pollute. Unless or until someone figures out how to get hydrogen fusion to work reliably and inexpensively, wind, solar and water seem the best alternatives to fossil fuels, which damage the environment in one form or another, either in production or use.

Renewables also – think about the implications here – signal a shift from various other forms of power to electrical power. Generation, storage, means of use and dangers to the environment and consumers have very different parameters with electricity as the primary energy source than if fossil fuels are what we rely on.

A relevant question then becomes, “Should electricity be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold to those who can afford it, as we’ve allowed oil and other fossil fuels to become, or should it be treated as a public good, available to all at very minimal cost?” I’ve lived in a city that had the prescience to build its own hydroelectric generation plant nearly a century ago, and the plant has been updated and modernized as the need arose over the decades. The city itself has outgrown the plant’s output, and the usual neoconservative politics at the state level has kept the city from expanding its generating capacity, but even with a plant that supplies only about 30 percent of the city’s electricity, electric rates there are dramatically lower than in surrounding communities that have to rely on privately-owned utilities which have been granted local monopolies.

It’s no secret that private utility companies loathe the TVA in the south. The Tennessee Valley Authority operates both nuclear and hydroelectric power facilities (and for all I know, it may also operate coal and natural gas facilities, as well), and while private power companies insist that the TVA represents “unfair” competition, what it really represents is an accurate measure of what it actually costs to generate electricity, thus making it far more difficult for private utilities to make up numbers out of whole cloth to justify rate increases that benefit only investors.

Wind, solar, hydroelectric, or whatever, I don’t see any logical reason for communities, and by extension states, to cede to private interests what is likely to become the dominant energy source of the next century. Those same private interests will, of course, scream to high heaven about “socialism” or “communism” or “Marxism,” in addition to questioning the sexual orientation and practice of anyone who suggests that private monopolies do not represent energy nirvana, but they’ll be wrong, just as they’ve been wrong about the “threat” of the TVA. As consumers, we’ll be better off if communities, small and large, generate some portion of the electrical power that they use, and the larger that proportion, the better off the public in those communities will be.

Ray, thanks for mentioning TVA, a strong advocate and user of nuclear power, TVA's big new effort is support of small modular nuclear power systems being developed by Babcock & Wilcox, etc.
Sadly, wind and solar are so intermittent that despite billions in taxpayer support, they have not replaced a single fossil fuel power plant anywhere on earth. There are reasons why together they produce about one percent of our energy supply.
We need to continue to support wind and solar, but don't hold your breath for them to achieve the scale we need. And don't live within two kilometers of one of those wind farms. The noise will drive you up the walls that the low frequency sound penetrates.

Gov Shumlin is one of the technically ignorant who seek to overturn the NRC grant of 20 more years to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. It supplies a third of the states power and 650 good jobs. We don't have a similar situation in MN, and our three reactors will continue to run for at least 20 more years, supplying low cost reliable power to our state.
I recently testified before a MN Senate committee in support of overturning our ban on at least considering new nuclear. A few of the legislators ranted on about the dangers of tritium in discharge water(a big issue in Vermont). None of those legislators knew the difference between tritium and table salt, but that doesn't stop them from talking or writing columns. And tritium in the discharge water is not a hazard to human health.
There are only two options for replacing coal's serious damage to the environment. Short term it's combined cycle natural gas plants like the one by the High bridge in St Paul where I take my classes to tour. Longer term it's nuclear which emits water vapor. Now if we can just get our technically ignorant President to stop dismantling Yucca Mountain and start building a recycling plant for spent nuclear fuel.

Final Note:
The Burlington Free Press reports that Governor Shumlin has endorsed the large-scale wind power project planned for the Northeast Kingdom’s Lowell Mountain Range. It also reports that Governor Shumlin insisted that it was coincidental, but of no significance, that Mary Powell, Green Mountain Power’s CEO, chaired his inaugural committee and, he added, that he had campaigned on a platform of supporting an expansion of renewable power sources in Vermont.
The desecration of Vermont's mountain ridge lines by wind turbines is alarming many Vermonters.

To sum up, Minnesota should run, not walk, as fast as possible from Gov Shumlin and anything Vermont does.

Todd (#3):

"Storing renewable energy is ridiculously easy"

Actually, it is not, but that is a fun fantasy.

Rolf, thanks for bringing generous doses of reality to this discussion about energy alternatives.

Don Shelby is a very fine writer, but he obviously doesn't know the first thing about energy technology.
As to Todd in #3, he isn't claiming knowledge, so he can't be blamed for a major blunder about our inability to store utility scale energy.

Rolf: Nuclear power plants emit only water vapor? The people of Ukraine and Japan might remind us that can emit more than that.

Robert, in Japan, perhaps 20,000 died from the quake and tsunami. So far, no one has been injured by radiation, and it is possible no one ever will be. And we don't have plants like Chornobyl or situated where 50 foot tsunamis strike.
There are risks with any of our energy sources. Our 104 commercial nuclear reactors do very well.

If anyone is still around:
The environmental impact of coal burning power plants is huge. Bob Mofffitt#14 of the American Lung Assoc is the expert on this point.
IMO the only option near term is the combined cycle gas plant such as the one which replaced the coal plant next to the High Bridge in St Paul. NG plants emit much less CO2 and don't produce coal's mercury, sulfur, uranium, etc.
Longer term it's nuclear and possibly solar. Nano technology and other approaches have the potential to increase the efficiency of solar. IMO these are the two areas we need to be investing in for the future.

Who me, an expert?

Thanks, Rolf! Yes, the health risks of burning coal are both well known and widely accepted.

Vermont is one of a handful of states on the east coast doing interesting things with alt energy. New Jersey requires 25% of it's power to come from renewables. That mandate results in power companies purchasing power from homes that offset their energy consumption with solar power, thus making it profitable for individual home owners to purchase the technology. New York State has also done something pretty innovative. They created the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). NYSERDA gets funding from a small (1 or 2%, I think) tax on everyone's energy bill. It then takes that money and spends it on incentives for energy conservation, and invests in renewable technology projects, etc.
I'd love to see MN come up with similar ideas...

There is a world market in solar panels, and a world market in oil. If you choose to invest in solar power, the best supplier may be offshore. If you reduce demand for oil, it is likely that the onshore high cost producers will shut down. The oil in the Persian gulf is the cheapest in the world to exploit. So go ahead and install solar power in order to reduce greenhouse emissions. But don't count on any positive effect on balance of payments, and certainly don't kid yourself that you're doing something positive for the economy or government debt. If you simply want to generate jobs and industry, build a coal plant and throw away your emissions regulations. There's no free lunch.

With the caveat that this is benchmark wholesale USA natural gas is is down to $3 per thousand cubic feet/one-million BTU. To compare this to (untaxed) fuel oil/diesel fuel this is under forty cents per gallon btu equivalent for benchmark WHOLESALE natural gas versus (untaxed) heating fuel oil/diesel.

As they say "your mileage may vary" but CNBC lists the wholesale benchmark price of fuel oil as $2.90 per gallon. (hint: again this is wholesale benchmark but fuel oil costs more than seven times as much as natural gas).

We consider Madison, WI. to be very "progressive" but the nat gas utility gives this price comparison.

http://www.mge.com/about/gas/pricefaq/
THESE ARE RETAIL, LIKE ON YOUR FINAL BILL.
Average local prices per therm
as of Dec. 1, 2011
Fuel oil: $2.58
LP gas (leased tank): $2.23
LP gas (owned tank): $2.19
Natural gas (MGE rates and charges):$0.86
BASICALLY VERSUS NAT GAS PROPANE COSTS 2.5 TIMES AS MUCH AND FUEL OIL COSTS THREE TIMES AS MUCH.

I DID SOME MATH BASED ON T HE MADISON GAS EXPECTED USEAGE THIS YEAR.
I just noticed the final line: "The average MGE residential gas customer uses about 840 therms per year."

THE MATH:
Fuel oil: $2.58 X 840 = $2167.20
LP gas (leased tank): $2.23 x 840 = $1873.20
LP gas (owned tank): $2.19 x 840 = $1839.60
Natural gas (MGE rates and charges):
$0.86 x 840 = $722.40

OH YEAH! WITH UNCONVENTIONAL RECOVERY WE SEEM TO BE DISCOVERING RECOVERABLE NATURAL GAS RESERVES IN THE USA AT A RATE OF A CENTURY MORE PER YEAR VERSUS CURRENT RESERVES. THE NATURAL GAS FOR HOME HEATING CURRENTLY HAS ENOUGH TO LAST 850 YEARS.

PROPANE/BUTANE FRACKING SHOULD SOLVE WATER CONCERNS WITH CURRENT FRACKING IN SOME AREAS (THE BAKKEN IN NORTH DAKOTA HAS ABUNDANT WATER)

Richard, I would recommend a natural gas or nuclear plant which would be kinder to the environment.
Germany's plan to close down nuclear and spend megabillions on North Sea wind is turning into a nightmare for German industry. 10,000 layoffs and huge losses already from this fiasco in Germany's utility industry.

I agree Rolf. I apologize if my dry-humor was not evident.

Speaking of alternative energy, I found this ironic.

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- A struggling plant in southeastern Idaho that hopes to produce material for solar panels fears Idaho Power Co. will shut off its electricity after it missed a payment.

Hoku Materials Inc., which has survived so far with help from Chinese financiers, said Friday that Idaho's biggest utility threatened to cut off power to its unfinished Pocatello plant after the company missed a payment.

One would think they would use solar panels to power their plant.

The fact that they cannot use solar panels to save their solar plant is in itself telling.

The plant in Idaho (Hoku Materials) is a materials plant, which will produce polysilicon for wafers (raw material for solar wafers). Hoku Energy sells turnkey installations, but only in Hawaii.