Saint Albans Messenger; October 31, 2016
By TOM BENTON
Messenger Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS — The Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) has released a public draft of its Regional Energy Plan, the document that could guide Franklin and Grand Isle counties’ energy future. The NRPC is taking public input and comments through Nov. 14.
The plan will apply to all 23 municipalities the NRPC represents, though only as an overarching regional policy. The NRPC does not have regulatory authority, but the Public Service Board must consider projects’ compliance with the plan during its approval process.
Readers can familiarize themselves with the plan by visiting the NRPC’s website, nrpcvt.com. The NRPC has presented the plan and taken public input at two hearings already. The third and final session is Tuesday in Enosburg Falls. Public comments can also be submitted to the NRPC through Nov. 14.
The first half of the plan outlines how the northwest will comply with the state’s new energy goals, specifically to meet 90 percent of the state’s energy needs by renewable sources by 2050, also known as the “90 x 50 goal.”
The NRPC collaborated with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) to create a regional energy model, predicting how energy will and/or can be generated and conserved using renewable sources.
Right now, the northwest’s energy consumption is around 523,000 gigawatt hours (GWh). The model predicts that figure will double by 2050. To meet the state’s energy goals at that time, the northwest region will need to generate 174 megawatts (MW) of new solar, 21 MW of new wind and 10 MW of new hydro.
Though the NRPC’s Regional Energy Plan is not an implementation plan, there are implementation possibilities within the plan. For example, to promote electricity conservation, utilizing Green Mountain Power (GMP)’s eHome program and the Zero Energy Now program is one of the plan’s suggestions. Educating rental housing owners about weatherization and funding opportunities, particularly in village areas, is one of its suggestions to achieve thermal efficiency. The plan notes there are few incentives for landlords to upgrade to more efficient heating sources when tenants pay for heat, and that “renter-occupied households often have little to no control over the heating source used in their housing unit because renters cannot lawfully change their heating source.”
The plan identifies transportation as a major issue. The NRPC has more influence in transportation regulation than in other areas, through the Act 250 process and the Transportation Planning Initiative (TPI), an Agency of Transportation program coordinating policy development with regional planning commissions. Nearly 50 percent of western Franklin County workers commute to Chittenden County, according to the U.S. Census, 75 percent of eastern Franklin County residents commute to western Franklin County and to Chittenden County for work and approximately 75 percent of Grand Isle County workers commute to jobs outside the county. The NRPC estimates northwestern drivers spend an annual total of almost $64 million on gas.
The Regional Energy Plan notes that electric and hybrid vehicles will reduce those costs, but that as of Jan. 2016, only 41 electric vehicles were registered in the region. “This trend is encouraging,” the plan says, “but the region still lags behind other parts of the state in converting to alternatively fueled vehicles,” possibly due to their cost, range and/or the lack of public charging stations. The plan identifies only two public charging stations in the region, one in St. Albans City, another in St. Albans Town. The plan predicts electricity and biodiesel provides 74 percent of total transportation energy needs by 2050.
The Regional Energy Plan advocates for more regional development in or near existing growth centers and villages, increasing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and increasing public transportation access, as well as compact development, which could significantly reduce local transportation costs and associated energy expenditures by reducing vehicle miles travelled and increasing public transportation.
The NRPC also strongly advocates for increased rail use, both for passengers and for freight. Quadrupling regional passenger rail trips and doubling regional rail freight tonnage by 2050 is one of the plan’s goals. The plan suggests supporting the extension of Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express from Rutland to Burlington and extending Vermonter service to Montreal, and by generally supporting increased regional rail freight service.
The NRPC favors solar power more than wind or hydro, preferably sited on rooftops, in former landfill sites and in Brownfield and Superfund sites located outside a designated downtown or village center, in earth resource extraction sites like sand pits or gravel pits or rock quarries or on surface parking lots. The plan states there is a lack of data that accurately identifies those areas in the region, and that the NRPC is actively working to develop that data for future siting guidance.
The NRPC estimates 1,218 acres will be necessary to generate sufficient solar power in 2050. That is only 0.27 percent of the entire northwest region’s land area, and the estimate is based only on current technology, which is becoming more efficient. The plan identifies western Franklin County as the ideal area for solar siting, since it has the greatest regional electrical demand.
The plan also identifies areas with wind generation potential in the vicinity of Jay Peak, Enosburgh Mountain and Fletcher Mountain. The plan does note that Rocky Ridge — the proposed site of Swanton Wind — and Gilson Mountain, in Fletcher, have “some wind generation potential.” But it also recognizes the “ongoing call from concerned citizens and advocacy groups for site-specific standards for large-scale wind generation facilities in Vermont, especially regarding sound,” and that regional difficulties meeting wind generation targets require “additional generation from other renewable sources — most likely, solar.”
Lastly, the plan identifies almost a dozen major implementation challenges — baseload versus intermittent generation, grid limitations, inclement weather, difficulty developing new hydro, difficulty transitioning to biofuels and ethanol, pressure to help Chittenden County meet its generation targets, reliance on cord wood and biomass, a lack of site-specific guidelines for solar and wind siting, impacts on local energy companies, lack of Regional and Commercial Building Energy Standards education and even the limits of NRPC’s regional jurisdiction.
The plan concludes, “The NRPC finds that any and all progress toward the goals of this plan is important. A lack of action at the state, regional and local levels may have calamitous consequences.”
Readers can educate themselves ahead of tomorrow night’s presentation by viewing the plan in whole or part at nrpcvt.com. The presentation begins at 6:30 p.m. at in the Enosburg Falls High School Library.
Beyond that presentation, the public can submit comments on the plan to NRPC regional planner Taylor Newton at tnewton@ nrpcvt.com. The NRPC expects to amend the plan, based on public input and finalized Act 174 standards, in Dec.