Quiet energy revolution
By Robin Chesnut-Tangerman
April 12, 2015
Vermont is a stubborn place to farm, with bony fields seemingly best suited to producing a fresh crop of rocks each spring. But fields across the state have seen a new crop taking hold — lush fields of solar panels are cropping up in unexpected places.
They are the result of a quiet revolution in the state goal to increase locally generated renewable energy. With them, however, comes a hailstorm of controversy that raises fundamental questions about the nature of our state — and the state of nature. Fundamental questions include the relationship between state and local governments, appropriate land use, long-range planning, climate science, the role of utility companies, and perhaps most fundamentally, the way we generate and use power.
Any one of these issues could be the topic of a semester-long seminar, far too big to address here. But that shouldn’t stop us. Let’s start with that line about the quiet revolution. Our traditional power system is one in which a distant power plant generates huge amounts of energy; the fuel may be coal, oil, uranium, hydro or natural gas. The power is “shipped” long distances over high-voltage transmission lines, then stepped down for local distribution, and the company makes their money based on how much power they sell.
There are several disadvantages to “business as usual.” One is referred to as “line losses,” the voltage drop or power loss during long-distance transmission and distribution. Losses vary depending on distance, voltage, transformers, and switching, but average 6 percent nationwide. There is substantial inefficiency built into the system, and the incentive is to sell more.
These large generating plants are usually located “somewhere else,” as are their fuel sources. So we, the final users, are well removed from the social, environmental, medical and economic impacts. Impacts can be slight, as with hydropower from Niagara Falls, or extreme, as with a coal-fired generator fueled with mountain-top removal coal from West Virginia. In the latter example, the damage to air, earth, and water is compounded by the damage done to local communities and public health.
However those impacts may vary, there has been one constant for Vermont: Power flows in and money flows out. It flows out to the oil fields of North Dakota, to the strip mines of Kentucky, the uranium mines of New Mexico and the flooded forests of Quebec. The solar panels we see, and the wind turbines, are changing that equation. Because this renewable energy is produced here in Vermont in smaller amounts and fed into the local grid, we do not suffer the line losses associated with long-distance transmission.
The cost of fuel is zero after the construction costs, and risks are minimal — maybe a sunburn if there is a bad solar spill. And because the power is fed into the local grid, we are able to enjoy the avoided costs of not needing to invest several hundred million dollars into transmission improvements over the last decade.
The revolution is that our power is no longer invisible, no longer from “away.” Every form of power generation still has impacts, and the big impact of distributed generation is that the impacts are no longer “away.” They are in our fields, on our rooftops and hillsides. They are the reality check, and it is only when we are confronted with our impacts that we are inspired to make difficult change — as we need to do. There is much work to do and difficult decisions to be made. And the solar panels sprouting in the fields are not the end, but one symbol of our evolving relationship with energy.
Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is an educator, builder and a Democratic member of the Vermont House from Middletown Springs. He can be contacted at email@example.com.