Picking Up the Pace to Reach 20% Renewables by 2020
Vermont’s current statewide comprehensive energy plan calls for 90% of our total energy use to come from renewable energy sources by the year 2050. Two months ago at the Renewable Energy Vermont conference in Burlington, REV leadership announced the need for immediate progress toward the next step along that path: getting to 20% renewable energy by 2020*. As I mentioned in my last column, right now only 11% of our total energy consumption comes from renewables. (Remember that that figure for total energy use includes all electricity and fuels, including those used for heating and transportation.) Over the next seven years, to meet the 20%-by-2020 goal, we need to almost double the amount of in-state renewables, while also ramping up efficiency and conservation efforts.
How do we do this? It won’t be easy, and will require major effort and leadership, as well as adjustments in thinking about how we all live and move around – but I expect these transitions have the potential to be exciting and joyful rather than onerous. Essentially, though, we know what we have to do, and it all comes down to the numbers. Keep in mind that Vermont has approximately 220,000 homes, and currently uses 5000 MW average** (MWavg) in total energy through the year. Here is a big-picture overview
Energy Efficiency and Conservation. We need to electrify our economy – an electrified economy that is supportable by renewables. In many instances, reducing or eliminating energy use is relatively straightforward; take heating, for example. By converting to electricity-driven cold-climate heat pumps to heat our houses and businesses, we increase electrical energy usage, but this is an overall savings, because the technology itself is five times more energy efficient than the conventional heating systems of today. In other words, we get five times more heat energy out of a heat pump system compared to burning oil or propane directly. Burning fossil fuels wastes energy in refining and transporting the fuels, and then quite a lot of energy is lost in the heat in the exhaust. To save 175 MWavg of energy via efficiency (14% of our 2020 goal) and conservation (25%), we must implement many changes. Converting one-eighth of Vermont homes (27,500 homes) to cold-climate heat pumps would save about 50 MWavg or 14 million gallons of oil per year. Weatherization of 25% of our homes (55,000 homes) would save another 77 MWavg of energy. Mass transit, reduced commuting and selective reliance on some electric cars can fill the remaining gap in our efficiency and conservation goals.
What you can do. Weatherize and insulate your home, and reduce personal energy use by moving to energy-efficient appliances, always with a preference for electric-powered models. Explore electrification of your home heating system to run on cold-climate heat pumps. If you don’t live near where you work, consider changing this to seek out ways to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles (electric or not).
Solar Electric and Solar Thermal Installations. We will need to plan on another 35%, or 158 MWavg, from solar electric and solar thermal (hot water) installations. Installation of solar hot water systems in one quarter of Vermont residences (55,000 homes) would cover 18 MWavg of need. Rooftop solar PV on one quarter of Vermont homes with solar PV yields another 36 MWavg or 275 MW of capacity. So then we would need to install another 104 MWavg of ground-based solar or 700 MW of installed capacity. To date, we have installed less than 40MW of solar electric capacity – only 6% of our 2020 goal! We need to at least double the amount of solar PV we install each year immediately; a 100% increase from each year to the next.
What you can do. Add a solar system for hot water to your home to maximize the efficiency of how you get hot water, and if you have an appropriate roof or land space, add solar PV also. If you have neither a suitable roof nor open land for solar PV, consider becoming part of a group net metering initiative within your utility, so you can receive credits on your bill from a solar installation located elsewhere in your utility’s service area.
In my next column I will write about how wind energy, biofuels and hydropower can make up the remaining 25% gap to meet our goal of 20% renewables by 2020. It is a huge task, and only one step on the way to the overall 90% by 2050 goal. We can do it, but only if we move much, much faster than we currently are moving. We need to work now to build a solid foundation for the larger shift away from dependence on fossil and nuclear fuels. Implementation support is necessary also – I believe a tax on carbon is absolutely essential, and is the next step towards reaching our goals. British Columbia has successfully implemented one – and now Vermont needs to lead the U.S. toward a secure and livable energy future.
*REV’s guide to 20% by 2020:
** Based on U.S. Energy Information Agency data from 2011, converting trillions of Btu’s to megawatts. MWavg is the average continuous use of power from all sources.
David Blittersdorf is the President and CEO of AllEarth Renewables in Williston, VT, a company that specializes in the design and manufacture of the grid-connected AllSun Tracker solar energy system. He is also the founder of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT, and is the managing partner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind.