Some Vermont renewable energy proponents have a fanciful notion of “Making Vermont Energy Independent”. Some legislators repeat it as part of their RE rhetoric and talking points. There is an organization “Energy Independent Vermont”, sponsored by VPIRG that espouses this independence movement, along with a tax on carbon. One such carbon tax envisions raising $520 million per year by 2026.
Vermont being energy independent is pure nonsense. Proponents likely do not know what that implies, or are engaged in a PR “feel good” that aims to bamboozle lay Vermonters, and boost their businesses with subsidies, such as a carbon tax, and increase prices for already-struggling households and businesses in the anemic, near-zero, real-growth Vermont economy.
For Vermont to be truly “energy independent”, it would have to:
– Disconnect from the NE electric grid, i.e., not use it as a crutch.
– Produce all of its primary energy, which includes the energy for generating electricity, for transportation, and for heating and cooling, from in-state energy sources; energy for generating electricity is only about 35% of all primary energy.
– Have enough thermal and electrical energy storage capacity, GWh, of various types, to cover wind and solar lulls, especially in winter, and to cover the seasonal variation of wind and solar generation, to ensure adequate electricity and other energy supply, including Vermont-sourced synthetic fuels, to the Vermont economy, 24/7/365, year after year.
– The capital cost of just the energy storage systems would be many billions of dollars.
– The operating and maintenance cost of such renewable energy systems would be several multiples of the existing Vermont energy system.
– Such an endeavor would be far beyond rational and would permanently cripple the anemic near-zero, real-growth Vermont economy. See URL.
NOTE: In the 1600s, Vermont, 9609 square mile land area, had about 10,000 natives, about 1.0 native per square mile. They were financially independent and energy independent. In 2017, Vermont population about 620,000, about 65 people per square mile, each of whom uses a lot more energy and a lot more stuff, almost all of it imported into Vermont from all over the world. That stuff has embedded energy. Would energy independence mean no more imported embedded energy as well? We would make our own cars and computers, with homegrown materials, etc.?
NOTE: Vermont’s 250-year-old practice of cutting trees, splitting them into firewood, etc., is a form of seasonal energy shifting, as it takes energy harvested during summer for use during the winter.
What if Vermont Were Generating Its Electricity from Wood Burning
Let us assume, as part of being “energy independent”, Vermont would generate its entire electricity supply by using wood burning power plants.
The electricity supply to Vermont’s utilities is about 6 billion kWh/y.
If that were generated by wood at 25% efficiency, a la McNeil and Ryegate, wood required would be about 6 billion kWh/y/0.25 x 3412 Btu/kWh x 125 lb wood (dry)/1 million Btu x 1 short ton/2000 lb = 5.12 million short ton (dry)/y, or about 10 million short ton (wet)/y; “as harvested” wood contains about 50% moisture.
In 2016, Vermont’s wood used for electricity, from in-state and out-of-state, was about 720,000 short ton (wet)
Wood used for electricity would have to increase 10/0.72 = 13.9 times, for Vermont to be energy independent ONLY FOR ELECTRICITY, which uses only 35% of all primary energy.
Vermont is already harvesting near its sustainable limit, about equivalent to annual aboveground biomass growth/2, from Vermont’s harvested area, about 1,812,097 acres; Vermont’s total forest area is about 4,414,884 acres, most of which is unavailable. Either, Vermont would be deforested in about a decade, or it would need to import much more out-of-state wood, i.e., send money out of state.
Wood Source Energy Factor: Losses = Upstream (harvest, chipping, transport, about 2.5%) + Conversion to electricity, including site self-use (about 75%) + Transmission and distribution (about 7%) = 84.5%, i.e., 15.5% arrives at the user meters. The source energy factor for wood power plants is 100/15.5 = 6.45, i.e., the energy equivalent of 5.45 of 6.45 trees is wasted.
NOTE: McNeil and Ryegate wood-fired power plants have similarly high pathway source factors because of their poor efficiency. Closing them would significantly reduce Vermont’s source energy, and toxic pollution, and CO2 emissions. Per government edict, burning trees is declared CO2-neutral, which is only partially true, plus you have to wait for about 50 to 100 years for almost all of the CO2 to be fully reabsorbed by forest growth.
NOTE: Burlington Electric Department claims its electricity supply is 100% renewable. However, McNeil is renewable:
- Only on a 50 - 100-year basis, for the combustion part of the pathway as noted above (just Google); the non-combustion part of the pathway (about 10%) will never be recovered.
- Only if the forest, from which the trees were taken, would still be there to do the absorbing
- Only if the forest CO2 absorption/acre is unimpaired by development, roads, logging, clear-cutting, disease, etc.
Combined Heat Power: Wood-fired, combined heat power, CHP, plants would have annual average efficiencies of about 70%. To achieve maximum efficiency, they would need to operated near rated output, produce electricity, plus any recovered heat would need to be fully utilized for building heating and cooling. The heat recovery boilers of such plants usually have supplementary firing to cover winter demand. With that approach, Vermont’s wood harvest would have to increase 25/70 x 10.3 = 3.68 times, which is still not feasible.
The Folly of Adding District Heating to McNeil: There are plans to add a thermal distribution loop to the McNeil wood-fired power plant in Burlington to heat nearby buildings. The turnkey capital cost (excluding financing costs) would be $7 million for McNeil plant modifications + $10 million for thermal distribution loops + $12.5 million for building modifications, for a total of $29.5 million.
All of the funds likely would have to be federal and state government grants, as with the $20 million turnkey cost for the money-losing Montpelier District Heating Plant, because no private investor could ever make a profit from such projects.
Vermont Natives and Europeans: In 1600, there were about 8,000 natives in Vermont, about 1 person square mile of land. They had selected the best areas, near lakes and streams for their style of living, i.e., hunting, fishing, gathering and some agriculture. They lived in small, cleared areas connected by paths through the forests for thousands of years. They travelled with dugout and birch-bark canoes.
In the early 1600s, because of epidemics, likely due to contacts with Europeans, most of the natives died, and many of these areas were abandoned, and taken over by Europeans, and are now covered by towns roads and other man-made detritus. Over time, the Europeans deforested Vermont, which destroyed much of the fauna and flora of the forests, streams and lakes. Vermont’s remaining natural habitat, that would be suitable for the native style of living, likely could not support even 2,000 natives.
For example, there would hardly be any fishes in Vermont, if there were no state fish hatcheries. How would a native grow crops without fish as fertilizer?
NOTE: Some 100% RE folks, such as Energy Independent Vermont, c/o VPIRG, Montpelier, VT, think 625,000 Vermonters should be energy independent. That would mean getting ALL of our primary energy for electrical and other uses from Vermont sources, and to be truly “pure”, it would mean disconnecting from the NE grid. Vermonters would still be importing almost all of their food and other goods and services, which required energy from mine to final user. Such 100% RE folks appear to live in LaLaLand.
Clearcutting in the 1800s: By 1880, almost all of the natives had died off, and 80% of Vermont's forests were gone. The underground biomass that had gathered and retained minerals and nutrients to sustain the forests over thousands of years had died, and those minerals and nutrients were dispersed and leached out of the soil over the decades.
New trees grew back on that depleted soil, but many of them were spindly, sickly and short-lived. They were only a pale copy of the big trees that were possible before.
Acid Rain From 1950 Onwards: Since about 1950, acid rain came from the Midwest, which doused the trees with an acid bath due to snowmelt every spring, and with multiple acid baths due to rainfall year-round. At present, about 50% of aboveground tree biomass is spindly, sickly and short-lived, per surveys of the US forest service.
People in the logging business want to cut and remove those “junk” trees for firewood, chipping and making pellets. However, that "junk" wood should be chipped and spread on the forest floor to provide minerals and nutrition to the soil, so healthy trees could eventually grow again. It is called conservation and restitution. See URLs at bottom of article for much additional information.
NOTE: The damage to the soil from clearcutting in the 1800s and from acid rain from 1950 onwards, have damaged NE soils to the extent about 50% of trees are only suitable for burning. That does not mean they should be burned. Logging forests, i.e., taking nutrients from the forests ultimately depletes the soil. Clearcutting forests RAPIDLY depletes the soil, because it kills the belowground biomass, which allows its minerals and nutrients to disperse, wash away, etc., as happened during the 1800s. Regrowth will ALWAYS be less on a lesser quality soils. The reason farmers fertilize their soils. No fertilizer leads to meager crops. Farmers have a word for poorly managed soils: PLAYED OUT.
NOTE: Often logging proponents claim loggers take the trunks and don't take any of the leaves or very many of the branches. Well, one of my neighbors, with 760 acres, gathers hundreds of trees from the woods and piles them up. A contractor, with a huge chipper, and a feeder crane, and a 50 ft. truck and trailer, arrive on the site. I have watched them chip hundreds of WHOLE trees (trunk, branches, leaves), up to 2 FEET in diameter. A whole tree is gone in about one or two minutes. The noise of that equipment is well over 100 dB.
Willem Post: Looking at Vermont’s Energy Future
Renewable energy proponents are using a new catchy mantra “Energy Independent Vermont” to justify imposing a regressive carbon tax. Some legislators repeat it as part of their campaign rhetoric and renewable energy talking points. Either they do not know what that implies or are engaged in another scam of the gullible.
Vermont imposing a unilateral carbon tax of $500 million per year by 2027 would be economic suicide, as it would transfer up to $500 million per year, less sales tax reduction, into incompetent, ponderous, inefficient government hands (EB-5, health care website and the Montpelier district heating plant come to mind), for distribution by that government to pressure-group-determined “worthy” programs.
For example, owners of rental properties would be clamoring for maximal subsidies to upgrade the energy efficiency of their energy-hog buildings, something they would have done years ago, if an enforced state energy code for buildings would have required it.
Below is a description, with numbers, of two alternatives:
Alternative No. 1, Vermont Energy Independent
For Vermont to be truly energy independent, it would have to disconnect from the New England electric grid (not use it as a crutch), and produce ALL of its energy — not just electrical energy — from home-grown energy sources, plus have enough energy storage capacity, in various forms (not just electrical), to ensure adequate energy supply to the Vermont economy 24/7/365, year after year. The capital cost and environmental damage of the wind, solar and other energy systems, plus grid system expansion, plus energy storage systems would be very high.
Existing wind and solar: At the end of 2015, Vermont’s homegrown wind and solar were:
Homegrown Energy Supply
The present supply to utilities is about 6,200,000 megawatt hours (MWh) per year.
Green Mountain Power’s Integrated Resource Plan projects it to be about 9,066,000 MWh in 2050, a 46.2 percent increase, due to increased use of heat pumps and electric vehicles, and decreased use due to energy efficiency.
The electricity would come from mostly homegrown wind and solar sources, which would supply about 65 percent of Vermont’s total energy in 2050.
The supply and storage of the other 35 percent, or 4,881,692 MWh, mostly as homegrown thermal energy, is much more difficult without using fossil fuels, and has yet to be determined.
Wind and solar systems have useful service lives of about 25 years, and would require periodic major capital investments to maintain a reliable energy supply.
Alternative No. 2, Vermont Partially Energy Independent
A much better approach would be for Vermont to be partially energy independent, i.e., connected to the New England grid, with an assumed electrical energy mix of 25 percent in-state wind, 25 percent in-state solar, 40 percent hydro from Hydro-Quebec, and 10 percent other (the existing McNeil and Ryegate wood-chip-fired power plants, small hydro plants, small bio plants, etc., plus any new power plants. The efficiency of wood-chip-fired power plants is about 25 percent). Hydro-Quebec has massive energy storage systems to smooth the daily and seasonal wind and solar energy variations to ensure a continuous, steady, low-cost, near-CO2-free, electricity supply 24/7/365, year after year.
Wind 25 percent
Wind turbine system capacity required = (9,066,000/4 MWh/y)/(8760 h/y x 0.33, average capacity factor) = 784 MW
Lowell has 21 turbines, or 63 MW on 3.5 miles of ridgelines, plus about 3 miles of access roads to get to the ridgeline. The capital cost was about $150 million, plus about $20 million to connect it to the grid.
Lowell-type systems required = 784/63 = 12.4
Ridgeline miles required = 12.4 x 3.5 = 44
Capital cost of Lowell systems = 12.4 x $170 million = $2.116 billion
Solar 25 percent
PV system capacity required = (9,066,000/4)/(8760 x 0.15 average CF) = 1725 MW
PV system enclosed by a fence = 7 acre/MW.
Equivalent to about (800) 2 MW PV systems spread throughout Vermont.
Fenced in meadow area required = 1725 x 7 = 12,074 acre, or 19 square mile.
Capital cost = 1725 MW x 3.5 million/MW = $6.037 billion
Hydro 40 percent
Two 1500 MW transmission lines would be required, each capable of providing all of Vermont’s peak demand of about 1400 MW in 2050, in case the sum of wind and solar energy is zero, as frequently happens throughout the year.
In case of both lines failing, the connection to the New England grid would take over, i.e., Vermont likely would rarely, if ever, be without power.
The cost of the near-CO2-free hydro energy to utilities would be about 6 - 7 c/kWh, adjusted for NE wholesale prices, plus about 1.1 c/kWh for transmission.
Capital cost about $3.5 billion
Total capital cost = 2.116+ 6.037 + 3.500 = $8.156 billion, plus about $1.5 billion for grid build-outs = $9.656 billion.
The capital cost of homegrown energy systems for the other 35 percent of Vermont’s total energy needs likely would be about $5 - $6 billion.
NOTE: Solar energy is variable and intermittent, because it varies from minute to minute, due to variable cloud cover; is minimal during winter, maximal during summer; and is minimal or zero about 75 percent of the hours of the year. Wind energy is variable and intermittent, like the wind, is least during summer; and is minimal or zero about 40 percent of the hours of the year. Many hours of the year, the sum of wind and solar energy is minimal or zero, per ISO-New England’s grid status website, i.e., unlike coal, nuclear, gas, hydro, bio and geo, wind and solar, without viable utility-scale energy storage systems, are not reliable energy sources.
NOTE: The capital cost of such an energy system would still be enormous, even if energy efficiency were such that total energy consumption in 2050 would be 50 percent of consumption in 2016.
NOTE: Wind and solar systems have useful service lives of about 25 years, and would require periodic major capital investments to maintain a reliable energy supply. Almost all existing systems would need to be at least partially replaced before 2050.
Additional Capital Costs
In addition to above capital costs, there would be the multi-billion-dollar capital cost for:
- Heat pump-based heating and cooling systems to replace existing systems for almost all buildings.
- Electric vehicles and chargers to replace almost all existing light duty vehicles, i.e., cars, SUVs, minivans, ¼-ton pickups.
- Upgrading the energy efficiency of almost all buildings.
- Upgrading the overall energy efficiency of almost all businesses.
The levelized cost of energy, cents/kWh, produced by such a system would be at least 2-3 times of the existing system, on a real-cost basis.