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Green Mountain Power Takes A Bold Step Toward Energy Resiliency

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Green Mountain Power has just filed a proposal with the state of Vermont that it says could eliminate power outages for all 270,000 of its customers by 2030. The plan is to put many of its power lines underground where they are safe from falling trees and branches, strengthen the lines that have to remain above ground so they can better resist powerful winds and heavier snowfalls, and install a residential storage battery in the home of every residential customer.

Those batteries can keep the power on when outages do occur so people don’t have to live without heat or water during a Vermont winter. Does that last part surprise you? That’s because you have never lived somewhere that depends on water from a well. When the lights go out, so does the well pump, which can change your whole perspective about how much we take running water for granted.

Why is Green Mountain Power doing this? “We don’t want the power to be off for our customers ever. People’s lives are on the line. That is ultimately at the heart of why we’re doing what we’re trying to do,” CEO Mari McClure told the New York Times.

There are other reasons as well — solid, hard-headed business reasons. McClure believes it will cost less in the long run to take these steps now. The company currently spends $20 million a year just on tree trimming. Might some of that money be better spent by investing in more resilient infrastructure? It has spent $55 million to repair broken power lines this year alone, and that number is rising every year as more powerful storms hammer the state.

You may not think of Vermont as being particularly vulnerable to changes in the environment. It has no coastline threatened by sea level rise and has never been a place where people worried too much about hurricanes. That changed a decade ago when Vermont was devastated by extreme flooding that ripped through many of its cities and towns, many of which are located next to rivers because that’s where the power to run mills came from originally.

Oil & Honey

The floods wiped out a beekeeper who happened to be a neighbor of Bill McKibben, which inspired him to research the cause of the flooding. He discovered that warm air holds more moisture, which in turn leads to heavier than normal rains, which in turn lead to flooding in places where stormwater never used to be a problem. And the reason the air temperatures are rising is, in large measure, due to the gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

McKibben used what he learned to write a book called Oil and Honey, which drew a bright line between the activities of the fossil fuel companies and the destruction of his neighbor’s bees.

In the book, he introduced his readers to the concept of a “carbon budget” — the number of tons of carbon dioxide the Earth’s atmosphere can absorb before tipping over into a climate Armageddon where average global temperatures rise by 5 to 7 degrees Celsius.

“Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. The 565 gigaton figure was derived from one of the most sophisticated computer simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades,” he wrote.

Green Mountain Power Wants To Future-Proof The Grid

Mari McClure must have read McKibben’s book, because she sees clearly the future events that will challenge her company to continue offering reliable, affordable electricity to its customers. She said the high cost of large-scale power projects threatened to raise electricity rates so much that many customers might struggle to pay for energy.

In an interview with CNBC, she said that while batteries are not cheap, the cost of repair and maintenance to keep the grid operational is increasing all the time, partly because of climate change — something that many other utility company executives are loath to talk about. “This is a full out plan to look at the extreme weather right in its face and tackle it,” she said.

McClure has some experience with battery storage, telling CNBC her Ford F-150 Lightning kept her home functioning for five days when the temperature outside was 5°F. “This is something we know works now. We’ve been deploying it since 2016. We have thousands of Vermonters who already have experience with battery storage and we need to roll it out to the rest of our customers as quickly as possible.”

Many utility companies are spending billions to construct new long-distance power lines to connect to wind and solar resources that are located far away. Those transmission lines can take years to get approved and built because of environmental reviews and local opposition.

In May, the Brattle Group, a research firm based in Boston, concluded that utilities could save up to $35 billion a year if they invested in smaller scale energy projects like home batteries and rooftop solar panels that can be built more easily and quickly. Green Mountain’s proposal seems to recognize that reality, Leah Stokes, an associate professor of environmental politics at the University of California in Santa Barbara told the New York Times. “It really is the model, especially if you’re worried about power outages. It really could become the example for the rest of the country.”

Ms. McClure told CNBC that when the upgrades — including all those residential storage batteries — are complete in 2030, “At the end, we’re going to have that two way decentralized energy independent grid that is much more affordable. So I can invest this money and look my customers in the face and say ten years from now it’s going to be more affordable for them to electrify their lives, their transportation, their heating. We have to stand up as an energy industry and tell people it’s going to lower their costs when they decarbonize.”

If Only We Had Listened

We are not used to hearing such hard-headed advice from our utility executives, but what McClure said makes perfect sense. Had we listened when James Hansen told the Senate in 1988 about the approaching climate emergency, the cost of addressing an overheating planet would have been a tiny fraction of what it will be today. Elon Musk put it succinctly recently when he said it will cost $10 trillion today to maintain the planet as a habitable place for humans, but doing nothing will cost at least $14 trillion.

The cost of the Green Mountain Power plan is estimated at $1.5 billion, which McClure says will paid for by a 2% increase in what customers pay for electricity. If they don’t do this, by 2030 the cost of electricity will be much, much more, McClure says. It’s reminiscent of the iconic “You can pay me now or pay me later” advertising campaign that Fram rolled out 40 years ago.

The exact details of the residential storage piece of this plan are subject to the regulatory process. No one knows at this moment what the cost to customers might be. Although, in the past, Green Mountain Power has made installing them very inexpensive for customers.

CleanTechnica reader Jock Gill lives in Vermont and had 2 Tesla Powerwall batteries installed by the company in 2018. He pays just $17 a month for the two batteries. Future customers will probably pay more. Jock also has a Solaflect solar array in his yard in Peacham, and finds he only uses a few kWh of electricity a month. All he pays are his connection fee and his battery lease fee — a total of about $45 a month.

I asked Jock if it wouldn’t make more sense for Green Mountain Power to invest in grid-scale storage instead of individual batteries. “Having your own batteries and PV gives you much more flexibility as  you have power on site. A big battery might not support your house or might be drained by other users. Decentralization, internet style, is always a better design for resilience and energy security. PV without batteries is of no use in an outage. I would rather control my own demand/supply situation directly.”

The Takeaway

The utility industry may be waking up to the climate emergency, helped by dramatic reductions in the cost of solar and wind power and battery storage. Recently, 25 utility companies ranging from giants like Xcel Energy to small municipal companies like Southern Minnesota Municipal Power have formed the Smart Electric Power Alliance to promote the transition to renewable electricity to lower their carbon emissions. Not surprisingly, Green Mountain Power is one of the founders of SEPA.

Tesla was first in the residential storage market with the Powerwall, but today Generac, Enphase, Sonnen, LG Chem, Samsung, Panasonic, ABB, and more are offering customers home storage products. All will be eligible to participate in the Green Mountain Power plan, if approved by regulators.

Once the batteries are installed, the company will be able to operate them all remotely to store electricity when it is less expensive and send it back to the grid when wholesale prices spike. It will turn much of Vermont into a virtual power plant that manages the supply of electricity to keep it affordable for all, thanks in large measure to the foresight of Mari McClure and her team. Hopefully, other utility companies will see what is happening in Vermont and decide to follow down the path being blazed by Green Mountain Power today.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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