Developer Joe Larkin at a South Burlington solar farm
A plan to speed up Vermont’s adoption of renewable energy is hitting headwinds over concerns about potentially enormous costs.
Senators seem to support a bill that would require electric utilities to get all of their power from renewable sources by 2030. The state’s renewable energy standard already calls for them to reach 75 percent renewable by 2032. So the new benchmark seemed manageable to members of the Senate Finance Committee.
But the bill’s call to double — from 10 percent to 20 percent — the amount of renewable energy that utilities would have to purchase from new Vermont sources like solar seemed to be a bridge too far for some senators.
Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), who chairs the committee, cautioned members that the requirement was causing some utilities — and her — concern over potential cost hikes.
Officials from Vermont Electric Power Company, which manages the state’s electric power distribution, estimated it could cost $900 million to upgrade the grid with enough battery storage to handle the jump to 20 percent renewables.
“If this bill is going to come out [of committee], we’re going to have to find an anxiety level we can live with,” Cummings said.
The cool reception could signal trouble for S.267, one of the signature climate bills of the session. Environmental groups favor the move to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Green Mountain Power officials testified the requirement could lead to a 4 percent increase in rates. Statewide, the increase could cost utilities — and therefore ratepayers — up to an additional $53 million, according to Ed McNamara, planning director for the Department of Public Service.
“Nobody is oblivious to what this would mean to ratepayers,” said Sen. Chris Pearson (P-Chittenden).
He stressed, however, potential boosts to the Vermont economy from green-energy jobs. Since peaking in 2016 at 6,965 positions, the number of those jobs has declined 12 percent, according to the Public Service Department.
It makes more sense for the state to increase its renewable energy capacity than merely to buy more green energy from out of state, said Ben Edgerly Walsh, director of the climate and energy program at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
“If you look at the economic impacts and the resilience benefits of this kind of investment, it clearly is good for the state as a whole,” Edgerly Walsh said.
To ensure the state doesn’t become overly reliant on out-of-state energy sources, the bill includes what is effectively a cap at 33 percent for electricity purchased from Hydro-Quebec.
Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) said he’s supportive of the bill but concerned that utilities serving very different customer bases and areas might be required to meet a uniform goal.
“It should be tailored to each utility to be equally challenging to each and achievable to each,” MacDonald said.
Pearson, who coauthored the bill, said he would try to find a way to address his colleagues' concerns in coming days.
“What I want to know is, what is this going to cost, and what is it going to cost in totality?” said Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin). “Right now I don’t understand what we are doing, and I don’t understand this sufficiently to make a good decision on it.”