The True Cost of Electricity

The ongoing discussion about the proposed solar farm on Cheney field seems to be coming to a head with public sentiment firmly opposed.

As a water and electric ratepayer, I support the construction of a commercial-scale solar farm.  The business side is straightforward.  Northfield Electric Department is required to meet Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard.  If we oppose development of renewable energy in Northfield, NED will eventually pay fines and purchase Renewable Energy Credits, raising electric bills for NED customers.  A local solar farm would be the first renewable energy facility completely owned by NED, and it’s what we need to do.

An alternative to Cheney Farm?  If residents are opposed to one solution, we should take responsibility in finding another, feasible, apples-to-apples solution.  The Wellfield lies on a floodplain — so that’s not going to work.  Maybe we can use our parks at Memorial Field and Northfield Falls.  (Yea, not happening.)  Perhaps we can find 5 acres of rooftops to generate an equivalent 1.2 MW of electricity — but that’s a lot of rooftops, a lot of insurance liability, and a lot of public-private partnerships.  Who knows, maybe it can work.  It won’t work as efficiently as a single-site solar farm.  But a conversation about an alternative is much better than just saying, “We don’t want it here.”

We need to become responsible for our own renewable energy and bear the true costs of electricity.  It’s really easy to flick a light switch without appreciating immense environmental damage done elsewhere.  But let’s be clear:  when you flick a switch, someone pays the environmental price.

For example, a significant percentage of your electricity comes from Hydro-Quebec.  The James Bay Project is a series of dams impacting rivers, people, and natural habitats across an area the size of New York State.  And this is just one of Hydro-Quebec’s projects.

The environmental impact we offset to others by purchasing Canadian hydro is massive.  In northern Quebec, these costs have included, besides what you might ordinarily imagine,  the drowning of 7,100 to 22,000 caribou and decades of continuous political struggles for the James Bay Cree and Inuit peoples to protect their land and way of life.

In 1984, Hydro-Quebec released 1500 cubic meters of water per second from a dam upstream of an annual caribou migration path.  7,100 carcasses were counted, with an estimate of total losses between 10,000 and 22,000.  Quoting the New York Times:

The accident was called ‘‘a major environmental catastrophe” by the Audubon Society. Leaders of the Inuit, or Eskimos, termed the event ”an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions.” The animals were trying to cross the Caniapiscau and Koksoak Rivers about 60 miles upriver from Kuujjiaq, a town on Ungava Bay.  The caribous, which were making an annual migration, were swept over waterfalls or carried away in the rapids of the two swollen rivers.  Witnesses said carcasses were piled five or six deep in some places on the river banks. 

This isn’t a sad anecdote from long-forgotten history.  It’s an ongoing reality directly related to electricity consumption.  In April of this year, Hydro-Quebec proposed releasing 750 cubic meters of water per second, which would raise river levels 12 inches, causing renewed concerns about what happened in 1984, along with questions about immediate impacts to fishing, hunting, and gathering.  As recently as May, Hydro-Quebec was still mulling the decision, reportedly saying,that, “if it doesn’t spill the excess water in the reservoir, it could result in a big, uncontrolled release.”

This is just one dam of many massive, massive dams in Northern Quebec.  Native and non-native people alike fight to preserve and protect some of the most pristine environments on the planet.  We need to think about this when we turn on our lights.  

I support a commercial-scale solar farm because it seems that, too often, Vermont wants to pass the buck on energy production responsibility.  We’re masters at energy efficiency — and we’re pretty good at energy hypocrisy, too.  See the Times Argus’ “State of renewables not what you might think:

“What is extremely troubling to me as a Vermonter whose family roots are deep in this state is that we’ve had a lack of transparency and a big focus on the perception of Vermont being green when it comes to renewables, without that largely being the case in reality,” said Kevin Jones, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School and an author of the report.

and VTDigger’s Vermont not meeting renewable energy goals, report says.”

The report suggests that despite the state’s progress on renewable electricity, in-state production of renewable electricity is not “flourishing in Vermont,” as shown in a Public Utility Commission report last year. The majority of Vermont’s renewable electricity comes from imported hydropower rather than from in-state renewables, according to the Energy Action Network report.

When I think about opposition to the solar farm on Cheney Field, I can’t help but wonder:  What sacrifice has Northfield  made?  How are we part of a renewable energy solution?

On Sunday I took a walk up to Cheney Field and imagined what a solar farm would look like there.  Cheney Field can be seen only from the highest residences on Dole Hill, Tracy Hill, and a short section of West Hill.  A solar farm there would not disturb anyone’s viewshed.  Neither would it imperil wildlife — at least, not any more so than the multitude of single-family homes popping up like rural sprawl in our woods and fields.  It would not contaminate our water supply, which is stored in two quarter-million gallon concrete tanks.  It would not bar people from hiking, biking, or running on the trail which runs through it.  As I looked around, I could see a solar farm which, even one year after its construction, very few people would worry about.  In that sense, I could accept Cheney Field as the true cost of electricity in Northfield.

I say all of this knowing how many friends disagree with me.  I’ve seen the petitions.  Many of you are more than neighbors.  You are people I admire, love and respect.  Over the last few weeks our face-to-face conversations have been civil, understanding, genuine.  This is the part I appreciate most about Northfield.   The true cost of friendship is the effort we put forward in being honest with each other.

 

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Cheney Field: “I think we’re missing something.”

It’s encouraging to read a robust conversation about a proposed solar project in Northfield. One of the most interesting comments I’ve read thus far was Anne Donahue’s insight, “I think we’re missing something.”  In fact, we’re missing quite a bit.  In my view, the underlying issue hinges on local governance.  We can talk about beautiful fields, climate change, alternative options, etc. etc.  But everything hinges on the understanding of how municipal utilities operate within local government as independent enterprises. 

In brief:  The Water Department owns the field and the Electric Department is facilitating (or owns?) the project.  No matter how anyone feels about it, five people make the call.  They don’t need to listen to voters, ratepayers, or even the Selectboard.

Who is in charge of what?  Not us.

The decision makers are two elected officials and one appointed official on each board.  Over the last several years there have only been five — not six — decision-makers because one individual (Steve Fitzhugh) sits on both Boards.

Who put five people in charge of the proposed Cheney Field project?  Ratepayers who voted for the Commissioners, and residents who voted for Selectboard members.

Why does it work this way?

Northfield’s utility governing model isn’t required by State statute.  It’s just the way our Town Charter was written.  In a way, it makes sense because Northfield is small and not enough people are willing to run for public office.  But in another way, it doesn’t make sense because we’ve concentrated important decision-making power to a handful of people who serve on multiple Boards.  This isn’t a model of best practice in local government.  It’s just the way we’ve always done it.

The Business Question

A question that comes to mind is, “Who owns the project?”  Is the Electric Department going to lease Cheney Field from the Water Department?  Or is the Water Department going to own the solar panels as a customer of the NED?  This is an important question because funds can’t be mixed between the utilities.  If the Electric Department leases the land from the Water Department, then water rates might go down.  If the Water Department owns the solar panels, the Electric Department loses revenue.  I haven’t seen the details of the proposal, but I’m guessing not many others have, either.

Natural Aesthetics vs. Climate Change?

Open fields are beautiful and an important part of our landscape.  Assuming responsibility for siting local renewable energy is an important, ethical response to climate change .  Finding the right place to do it is controversial.  Meeting renewable energy targets is state mandated.  Utilities must meet their bottom lines.

All of these factors merge into a complicated soup of decision-making.  This is the reason Anne Donahue’s bit of wisdom rings true.  As in many public debates, an issue gets boiled down to a choice between two points of view.   And as with almost every issue, the Cheney Field solar project proposal is more complicated than this.  The questions should focus on what we are missing, as compared to what we already know.

So Nate, what do you think?

Great question.  I think more people should be interested in either running for local office or supporting more people to run for office.  It’s satisfying and productive to participate in decision-making.  It’s more effective than protesting single issues.  And it’s healthy for — what do we call it? — democracy.  If you don’t participate in self-governance, others will make decisions for you.

Full Disclosure

As many of you know, I’m now a teacher in Alaska.  This means I am now a seasonal resident in Northfield and I am no longer a voter here.  I’m no longer eligible to run for local or state offices, nor do I endorse or recommend any candidates running for any local or state office.  However, as a seasonal resident and former local official, I sometimes feel I can contribute to a discussion for educational purposes.

Springtime in Atmau

The river thaws.  Boats and boardwalks reappear from under the ice.  Tundra becomes saturated in The Floating Village once more.  Sunset comes at 10:30 pm.

 

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“Breakup” begins.

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Ice fishing is over.  Nets will soon be cast.

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New Arctic Pipe construction.

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Pleasant days for a walk around the island loop.

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Melt-water ponds over the boardwalk.

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Frozen tundra becomes impassable muck.

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Late sunsets low on the horizon.

Heat Pumps and Tesla PowerWalls: How Vermont follows New Jersey’s Lead

On May 18th, 2015, I attended an invitation-only forum in Washington DC, “Driving Energy Efficiency with IT.” C2ES Driving Energy Efficiency with IT

The CEO of New Jersey’s largest electric utility was a featured speaker. The utility is PSE&G, and the CEO’s name is Ralph Izzo. One of his most important jobs at the time was to figure out how to change PSE&G’s business model and create new revenue streams.

Izzo, like utility CEO’s across America, was under pressure.  Electric utilities were losing money to the onslaught of the solar revolution.  The century-old business model — selling electricity — wasn’t working anymore.  

Net metering offers tidy savings for homeowners, but one person’s gain is another person’s loss.  Utilities were on the losing side of net-metering.

Appliances as Revenue Streams

Izzo had come up with a solution.  From the small podium on the 9th floor of the Capitol View Conference Center, the CEO of New Jersey’s largest utility leaned forward and said, “Do you remember Ma Bell?”

Ralph Izzo

Izzo’s vision for the future meant going back in time more than 30 years.  Before 1983, Bell Telephone/AT&T owned almost every phone in America, attaching a rental fee to customers’ monthly bills.  Few people knew it, but that’s how it worked.  PSE&G sees this as a good thing.   Izzo’s “new” business model positions electric utilities as home appliance sales and leasing dealers. It’s a new take on the old Ma Bell model.

“I want to own every appliance in every house we serve,” Izzo said. “I want our customers to lease their heating and cooling systems, their refrigerators, and their dishwashers from PSE&G.  The customer pays a small monthly lease and we’ll take care of everything else.”

Vermont follows New Jersey

So what does this mean for Vermont?  Well, Green Mountain Power has adopted New Jersey’s appliance sales and lease business model.  GMP is in the appliance business, selling or leasing heat pumps, Tesla PowerWalls, and a suite of eControl and eWater smart products.

Leasing is convenient for those of us who can’t plop down $5,000 for a whole-house heat pump.  But it’s important to read sales/lease contracts, know who owns what, and who controls the on/off switch.  The feel-good, save-the-environment sales pitch should be just one of several factors in your energy decisions now that you have a plethora of environment-saving options.  You can be green and at the same time, become a smart energy shopper. 

Smart Meters & “eControl”

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Taking the appliance model another step, Ralph Izzo said he wanted to control appliance energy usage through smart meters.  PSE&G could generate a lot of savings if they could control customer usage. Demand Response creates efficiencies throughout the system, balancing supply and demand across the entire grid.

So what is Demand Response?  Do you remember when utilities would ask customers to turn down air conditioners in sweltering temperatures to help prevent a blackout?  Now utilities don’t have to ask for your help.  With your consent, outlined in a sales/lease contract, they can turn down your heat pump when you’re not home by way of your smart meter.

The question is, are customers given full disclosure before the contract is signed?  Do customers clearly understand what they are agreeing to?

For example, Green Mountain Power sells or leases Tesla PowerWalls — basically a big, lithium battery which can store electricity produced by your solar panels.  Through a Demand Response agreement, GMP can “borrow” energy from your Tesla PowerWall when it needs it — most likely in the evening when solar panels stop producing energy and demand increases.  They recharge your PowerWall when demand is less.  How can you tell if GMP is proposing a Demand Response program?  Well,  you’ll need to read the fine print of every contract you sign, and ask a whole lot of questions.

Tesla-Powerwall

Some folks get creeped-out by the thought of a utility remote-controlling their thermostat, as if there’s a home invader entering through the electrical panel.  But there’s no conspiracy theory here.  A utility can respond to electricity demand more efficiently if it can turn off air conditioners in houses during the day.  This type of Demand Response program helps everyone — and the entire grid.  You get a notification via a smart phone, and all’s good.  However, if you don’t like the idea, don’t agree to the terms.  Just ask, “What’s in it for me?” and request an answer in dollars.

Transparency and Full Disclosure

As I mentioned in a recent Front Porch Forum post, “Know what you own, and why you own it.” GMP, SunCommon, and other energy product/service providers don’t have an obligation to teach you the ins-and-outs of the renewable energy business.  In fact, Vermont’s new REC policy puts the average solar panel buyer/leaser at a huge disadvantage because it doesn’t include any type of consumer protection clause.  If you don’t ask the right questions, you may not get what you really think you get.

And therein lies the problem.  A company comes along and sells you on the idea that you’re going solar and helping save the environment.  The first part is not true at all if you don’t ask to keep your RECs.  The second part is somewhere in the middle of a truth-o-meter.

If you have solar panels on your roof, or if you are a “partner” in a Demand Response program, it helps if you understand the following:

  • You are a solar power producer if you buy solar panels.
  • You are not a solar power consumer if you don’t own your RECs.
  • You are letting a utility “borrow” electricity if you have a Telsa PowerWall and participate in a Demand Response program.
  • You are helping a utility if you let it control your appliances via a smart meter.

Then ask yourself, “What do I get in return?”  Maybe you get something, maybe you don’t.  It all depends on what is written in the sales/lease contract.

If a sales rep talks a rosy talk but doesn’t clarify the details, or if the contract is written almost entirely in small print, then it’s time to learn more and become a smart energy shopper.

Ultimately, here’s what you should understand:  The energy business is complicated, from solar panels to smart thermostats.  You have a lot of opportunities to go green and save money.  Just make sure you read any sales contract before you sign it.  Make sure it’s a good fit for you.

And beware of a sales rep dismissing anyone who suggests folks who advocate for transparency and disclosure are naysayers who don’t want to help the environment.  We’re just folks who want consumer-friendly renewable energy policies in Vermont.

Dawn’s Early Light

February 16th, 2018 —

Just a quick set of pictures to show off Atmau’s mid-winter beauty.  Dawn comes at 9am; dusk at 6:30.  It’s a 9 1/2 hour day with the long side in the afternoon and early evening.  Civil Twilight adds another half our or so.  Pre-dawn begins at 8:41 and dusk ends at 7:25.   So we’re basically almost at an 11 hour day.

Compared to Northfield and other towns tucked in among hills and mountains, I’d say we’ve got a longer day despite the difference in latitude.

How about a comment to let me know when light hits your eyes and disappears over the hills back in the greater Northfield area?  I’m curious how much light I’m missing or gaining between Vermont and Alaska.

Sunrise Sunset Feb 15 2018 day is done

Fly Day!

I’ve logged 16 fly days between Atmau and Bethel since my arrival in August.  It’s only a 10 minute flight.  But this time of year, a scheduled flight could be delayed for minutes, hours, or days. 

The best way to describe travel in the Delta during the change of seasons is with the old saw,  “You can’t get there from here.”  A layer of ice covers the river, so you can’t travel by boat.  The ice is thin, so the river hasn’t yet become an ice highway.  There’s no snow, ruling out a 30-minute snowmobile ride.

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Air travel is the only option this time of year — and fly days are subject to changing weather.  On any given day, or hour, the delta can be covered with fog or buffeted by howling high winds. There’s also mixed precipitation and freezing rain, the kind that would put any airport on weather hold.  

Another useful turn of phrase to describe travel this time of year is, “Hurry up and wait.”  You need to be ready to jump at a moment’s notice, waiting for a lucky break in the weather.  You call the air carrier every half-hour or so to check the status of the flight.  You’re kind of in limbo, not sure whether you’re going to depart at 9:30 am, 4:30 pm, or perhaps try again the next day.  All you can do is keep your luggage and snow gear on hand — and try to relax like everyone else who’s lived here long enough to know you can’t rush a windstorm.  

When the plane is said to be on its way, the next step is to climb into the John Deere Gator for a bumpy half-mile ride to the airstrip.  Then — wait.  Sometimes the flight is further delayed, which means getting a ride back and forth between the village and airstrip multiple times before the plan actually arrives.

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Most flyers know what it’s like to be stuck in an airport.  It’s boring and uncomfortable.  But that’s life.  Now imagine, instead of jockeying for the nearest phone-charger outlet in Gate 18, you’re standing on a gravel airstrip in a 20 mph westerly wind.  Another useful cliche comes to mind:  Dress in layers.    

But for all this, fly day is as exciting as it gets.  Traveling in a single prop airplane is like riding a motorcycle — you can see the world all around you and feel the power of the wind.  A small plane has bigger windows and cruises at lower altitudes.  You can discover the world below as if an explorer, flying only a few hundred feet above the ground.

I’ve always appreciated pilots.  Their job might seem glorious, but it’s often tedious and stressful.  This is equally true in the delta, but taken up a notch or two.

The airport in Bethel (BET) is the busiest in the state.  It serves a large, low-population region with high transportation needs.  Pilots fill in for the lack taxi drivers, UPS trucks, and postal delivery carriers.  They carry villagers to doctor’s appointments and the AC grocery store.   They deliver Amazon packages and the daily mail.  And they do it in all kinds of weather.

If you talk to anyone in the airport business they’ll assure you, “If you can fly Bethel, you can fly anywhere.”  I’ve been told that BET pilots are in high demand from carriers all over the world.  

I don’t doubt this, having flown in the co-pilot seat from time to time.  These people know how to fly with the wind blowing in all directions.  It’s a little scary the first time the plane lands almost sideways to the runway as the pilot crab-walks a landing.  See for yourself.  Here’s a 38 second video I took last Thursday morning.  

But you get used to it.  When you see the pilot jiggling an instrument or reflexively jerking the stick, you know he’s not any more interested in crashing than you are.  He’s feeling out the wind, rapidly adjusting the speed of the prop and the angles of the flaps and rudder.  He’s in the groove, like a skier dancing through moguls, or a pitcher eyeing first base.  You’re in the hands of a pro, unlike any you’ve ever relied on before.

Today I’m returning to Atmau, two days weathered in.  Fortunately, I’ve been housed at the Old Mission House B&B.  I’ve had the whole place to myself for three nights — enough time to write a glowing Yelp review.

It’s 9:45am, a beautiful morning with the orange twilight of dawn resting on the horizon.  My carrier is Renfro aka Yute Airlines.  The picture at the top of this post is from Thursday, November 16th.  This next one is only four days later.  The weather, as you can see, changes quickly.IMG_20171120_095128487.jpg

I’ve heard the road paving jobs are finishing up back home in Northfield.  Carrier Roasting is opening on East Street next to Good Measure.  A general sense of momentum is growing in Northfield, with reasonable progress and dissent along the way.  One of the most positive turnarounds I’ve observed over the last few years is the number of young families becoming engaged in local affairs.  The NCDN and Promise Community teams; the people showing up, rolling up their sleeves, experiencing trials and triumphs as they strive to improve Northfield.  We have a legacy of young families who’ve done this type of work for generations.  It’s good to see a new generation stepping up to the plate.  : ) 

 

The Lop-Sided Day

I have to plan phone calls home to the East Coast carefully, separated by 4 time zones.  7am seems to be the best time to reach someone during business hours — corresponding to 11am Eastern.  Time is an an interesting concept in Alaska because, if all time zones were equal, it would span 3 hours difference from Juneau to the Atmautluak.  This was the way time was divided in Alaska in 1966, according to the Alaska Historical Society.

Southeast [Alaska] would have Pacific Time; Yakutat would observe Yukon Time; most of Alaska west of the border with the Yukon Territory would fall in Alaska-Hawaii Time; and the Aleutians and western Alaska would be in Bering Time, three hours behind the Southeast.

In 1983, four time zones were shrunk to two, and later, to a single time zone.  At noon, the sun is almost directly over Juneau.  But solar noon doesn’t arrive in Atmautluak for another few hours.  As a result, we have a lop-sided day.

Sunrise Sunset

 

Tomorrow we have only 2 hours of daylight before noon, and five for the rest of the day.  The photo at the top of the page was taken about 10 minutes before 5pm, roughly 20 minutes before darkness fell across the horizon.

If there’s a preference between light on one side of the day vs. the other, I prefer it to be in the afternoon.  In Vermont we’re used to going to work in the dark, and so there’s really no difference here.  It’s the going home in the dark that’s a bummer on the shortest days of the year — and luckily, our afternoons are long enough to at least get a peek of the sunset when the work day is done.

Daylight on the shortest day, winter solstice, will begin at 11am and end just after 4:30pm.  I can live with that.  My lunch break is at 12:10, so I will be able to go for a walk in the morning sun.  At 4pm, I’ll walk home with time to spare before the sun sets.

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9:23 am.  November 14, 2017

I’m told winter is coming a little late this year.  Some of the locals can’t wait for the river and tundra to freeze.  Transportation is a lot easier as the land becomes navigable by snowmobile and the river’s ice-highway by truck.  I was taken by surprise when someone said, “I can’t wait for winter — I’ll be able to ride in a warm truck!”  Prior to winter, travel is by boat, or by waiting on the air-strip for a plane to pick you up.

The river froze over a couple of weeks ago, then thawed completely.  Ice floes are gathering today — and it’s not likely we’ll have an open river much longer.

Once again, it sounds like things are going well in Northfield.  I couldn’t help but notice Saturday it was warmer here in the Y-K Delta than in Northfield, Vermont.  We were at a balmy 36 degrees while folks back home were at a windy 27.  Seems a little upside down.  : )

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