Our Energy Future

In January 2016, for the first time in six years, the Vermont Department of Public Service updated its Comprehensive Energy Plan. Weighing in at 443 pages, the plan covers the many ways energy underlies our lives, through our use of transportation, heat, and electricity. It also both predicts and prescribes possible paths from today, when renewable fuels plus solar and wind make up only 16% of the total energy we use, to 2050, when the goal is a 45% reduction in total energy use, and renewable sources growing to make up 94% of the remaining total.

Whose goals are these? That’s a little hard to tell. Some of the time the reader seems to be only audience, watching while utility companies replace fossil fuel fired generators with solar and wind power and bio fuels. Other times, we are expected to be the agents of change, installing solar panels on our houses, sealing cracks and adding insulation to our houses, changing our light bulbs to LED bulbs, buying electric vehicles.

But are we ready for widespread solar power? There’s no question that many Vermonters have embraced this technology: a survey by the US Department of Energy showed that Vermont installed 900 residential solar systems in 2014 and the first part of 2015, more per capita in that period than any other state. But at the same time, proposed commercial systems in Taftsville and near Windsor were abandoned after meeting with public opposition.

An informal survey carried out at 2016 Woodstock Town Meeting showed that between 66% and 86% of the 60 people who filled out the survey strongly supported modest solar installations, with the degree of support depending on the scale of the installation:

Solar Type Strongly support Strongly oppose
Residential 86% 3%
Community 74% 11%
Municipal 66% 9%

On the other hand, only 40% of the respondents strongly supported commercial scale solar in Woodstock, while 32% strongly opposed it.

While solar is a relatively modest part of the Comprehensive Energy Plan, the least solar intensive scenario calls for the installation of twice as many residential systems on average per year for the next 35 years as the 900 systems installed in 2014, with total penetration rising from 3% of the homes today to 40% by 2050. And the same scenario requiring 1800 residential systems per year would also require an additional 8,000 acres for utility scale ground mounted systems.

Is that practical? Vermonters by and large support energy conservation, but all homeowners may not be ready for the investment required, even though it saves money in the long run. For the commercial scale systems, 8,000 acres is far less than 1% of Vermont’s open land, even after ruling out land obviously unsuitable for solar—north facing, wet, already in use, tree covered. Still, Vermonters value their landscape and want a say in how it is used.

2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan Goal

2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan Goal

And to complicate our future even more, the practice of selling renewable energy credits to other states so they can meet their goals means there will be even more solar systems on our rooftops and our hillsides than the numbers cited above.

Finally, although Solar is one of the most visible signs of our energy future, it is hardly the only one. Ways to store electricity, the grid required to transport it, new charging stations for electric vehicles, new wind and water driven generators, all will have their impact on the landscape.

So if this is our future, how do you feel about it? Your local representative in this area, who participated in the generation of the Comprehensive Energy Plan, is the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission. For more information, contact them. Sustainable Woodstock would also welcome your questions and comments.

References: Department of Public Service, Teo Zagar, Sustainable Woodstock, “Follow the Sun”, “Comprehensive Energy Plan”

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