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.