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Monday, March 28, 2022

DEC Commissioner Peter Walke Is Stepping Down to Lead Efficiency Vermont

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2022 at 2:13 PM

Peter Walke - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Peter Walke
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Peter Walke is leaving state service to join Efficiency Vermont, the organization that runs key energy conservation programs.

Walke said he has enjoyed being commissioner for the past two years and is eager to expand programs to help the state meet its ambitious climate goals.

“I’m looking forward to being able to be on the implementation side of things,” Walke told Seven Days Monday.

The Vermont native moved back to the state in 2017 to be a deputy secretary for the Agency of Natural Resources after stints in the U.S. Navy and as chief of staff at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

In the latter role, he worked on efforts to clean up drinking water in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., that had been contaminated by PFAS, the same class of fluorinated chemicals discovered in Bennington-areas wells in 2016.

Walke took a lead role in efforts to get Bennington residents with contaminated wells hooked up to clean water supplies and to hold Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the owner of a former North Bennington factory that polluted the wells with PFAS, responsible.

The company agreed in 2019 to spend approximately $25 million to run water lines to 245 homes in the area. Affected residents reached a $34 million settlement with the company in 2021.

Walke has been the administration’s point person to explore the state’s possible participation in the Transportation Climate Initiative, a multi-state tax-and-regulate program to regulate emissions from vehicles. Walke’s boss, Gov. Phil Scott, ultimately declined to join.

Walke also served on the year-long Climate Council that sought a strategy to help the state comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, which Scott also opposed.

Walke declined to address whether these challenges put him at odds with the Scott administration on key environmental issues or whether those contributed to his departure. Scott has been widely criticized by environmental groups for not doing enough to ensure the state meets its goals of reducing climate pollution.

The commissioner thanked Scott and Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and the “amazingly passionate and competent” staff at DEC.

Walke will start on May 9 as Efficiency Vermont’s new managing director.

“We’re excited to welcome Peter as the next leader of Efficiency Vermont,” Rebecca Foster said in a written statement. Foster is the CEO of VEIC, the nonprofit clean energy organization that operates Efficiency Vermont as what is  known as an efficiency utility.

“Peter’s wealth of experience partnering with diverse stakeholders to find solutions that work for all Vermonters is the perfect match for this role," Foster said. "Peter’s career reflects his strong ethic of listening to all voices to make thoughtful and consistent progress toward solving complex challenges.”

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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Idaho Company Acquires an Iconic Vermont Energy Storage Firm

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2022 at 6:00 AM

Jay Bellows of Northern Reliability - FILE: KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Jay Bellows of Northern Reliability
Waterbury-based energy storage systems manufacturer Northern Reliability has been acquired by an Idaho company — but it’s not going anywhere.

KORE Power announced that NorthernReliability will be part of a new entity called KORE Solutions and will remain in Waterbury. It will immediately add 25 positions, KORE Power said in a prepared statement.

The Waterbury company has created more than 1,000 energy storage projects around the world, including many for off-grid uses in extreme environments such as Antarctica.

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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Partnership Promises to Fuel GlobalFoundries' Campus With Green Hydrogen

Posted By on Thu, Jan 20, 2022 at 5:43 PM

Ken McAvey, Vice President and General Manager, Global Foundries - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Ken McAvey, Vice President and General Manager, Global Foundries
 A trio of prominent Vermont institutions announced a partnership Thursday to develop a carbon-free fuel source — green hydrogen — touted as vital to helping the state reach its greenhouse emission goals.

Vermont Gas Systems, the state’s largest supplier of natural gas, plans to break ground next year on a green hydrogen facility at the GlobalFoundries semiconductor plant in Essex Junction.

The pilot project, which includes research assistance from the University of Vermont, aims to create a green fuel source that can be mixed with the natural gas burned to heat buildings at the massive GlobalFoundries campus.

The utility sees the project as a crucial step to transition its fuel supply — which is mostly fossil fuel gas from Canada — to more renewable, lower carbon sources not only at GlobalFoundries but throughout its coverage area.

Vermont Gas Systems supplies natural gas to 55,000 families and businesses in Franklin, Chittenden and Addison counties, as well as renewable natural gas from farm digesters.

“This project will show the rest of the state and the world that zero-carbon thermal energy is possible,” Vermont Gas Systems President and CEO Neale Lunderville said at a press conference at UVM Thursday.

The vast majority of hydrogen is made using natural gas and coal, and is used in the petrochemical industry to make fuels and fertilizers. "Green hydrogen" describes hydrogen generated with renewable energy.

The announcement was met with skepticism in some environmental circles, however, particularly given how much energy it takes to produce hydrogen in the first place.
Neale Lunderville, Vermont Gas Systems president and CEO - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Neale Lunderville, Vermont Gas Systems president and CEO
“You can’t create green hydrogen with dirty electricity,” said Chase Whiting, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation who focuses on clean energy.

Whiting noted that while the entities claim the project would use electricity from solar and wind, those sources provide only “a tiny fraction of the total electricity production” in the state, and their contribution is growing very slowly.

It takes a huge amount of electricity to split hydrogen from oxygen molecules in water, and GlobalFoundries’s electricity consumption will likely increase significantly in order to slightly reduce its emissions from natural gas, Whiting noted.

The only way the process could be considered “green” would be if it were done exclusively with excess renewable energy, which Whiting said is actually in short supply in the state.

GlobalFoundries officials counter that in “initial stages,” the electricity will come from Green Mountain Power’s carbon-free portfolio. Adding  solar power or being able to buy renewable energy directly from other power suppliers — something the company has requested of regulators — would increase GlobalFoundries' ability to produce green hydrogen, officials said.

To reduce its power costs, the company has asked the state Public Utilities Commission to become a “self-managed utility,” meaning it could ditch Green Mountain Power and buy power directly from suppliers like Hydro-Quebec.

Critics have argued this would effectively release Vermont's largest energy user from its obligation to help fund new renewable energy projects in the state.

The manufacturer notes that it has a long history of energy efficiency improvements and is committed to reducing its carbon footprint. This effort demonstrates that commitment, said Ken McAvey, vice president and general manager at the Essex Junction facility, known as Fab 9.

“This project is exciting for us to grow our environmental record in the state and be leaders across the country and in the semiconductor space specifically,” McAvey said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy praised the partnership in a recorded statement. - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy praised the partnership in a recorded statement.
If utility regulators reject the request to go solo, McAvey said, the company would have to “step back and look at our entire portfolio and expenses” and see how else it could move forward.

Details of the project remain limited. Lunderville said it would entail a one-megawatt electrolyzer installed at the facility. Electrolyzers use electricity to break apart water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used on the site or compressed into gas and transported. He said the hydrogen could be mixed with the natural gas stream without the need for major upgrades of GlobalFoundries' heating equipment.

"So far, it's shown real promise," he said. 

In the future, green hydrogen could be used to store excess renewable energy,  helping ease some of the constraints on the power grid and opening more parts of the state to renewable energy production, he said.

Hydrogen technology is being developed to power everything from emission-free cars and buses to submarines and airplanes and long-haul trucks. Because of its energy density, some consider it to be most effective when batteries are either too heavy or not sufficiently powerful.

The technology has sharp critics. Elon Musk, founder of electric car maker Tesla, called using hydrogen to power vehicles “mind-bogglingly stupid” because of the inefficiency of using electricity to make a fuel that needs to be turned back into electricity.

While others see the technology as vital to the success of global decarbonization efforts, hydrogen-powered  passenger cars remain an expensive niche vehicle, which  just 31,000 worldwide compared to millions of electric vehicles.

The project is the first initiative of the Vermont Clean and Resilient Energy Consortium, said UVM vice president for research Kirk Dombrowski.

The state’s small size and history of collaboration make it an excellent place to innovate on clean energy, he said. UVM students are clamoring for opportunities to learn more about and advance clean energy efforts, he added.

“Our goal over the next several years is to make Vermont a leader in the clean energy space,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) offered his congratulations in taped remarks played at the press conference. He said he would help bring the project to the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Lunderville did not have a cost estimate for the project, but said his utility was funding it and would be seeking federal grants. 

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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Vermont Solar Energy Company iSun Acquires SunCommon

Posted By on Wed, Sep 8, 2021 at 5:06 PM

Solar arrays - DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime
  • Solar arrays
Two of the largest solar companies in Vermont are combining as part of a plan for regional growth. On Wednesday, the Williston-based iSun announced that it would acquire SunCommon, of Waterbury, for $40 million.

SunCommon is the state's largest provider of residential and commercial solar energy systems. iSun is the largest industrial and utility-scale solar business, according to the companies.

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Friday, May 7, 2021

Burlington-Area Bike Share Company Launches New Electric Fleet

Posted By on Fri, May 7, 2021 at 5:37 PM

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger at Friday's event - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger at Friday's event
A multi-year effort to expand and electrify a bike-sharing system in the Burlington area is getting a boost.

On Friday, Greenride Bikeshare announced that it had completed its long-awaited goal of replacing its 105 pedal bikes with 200 electric-assist ones in an effort to make the pay-as-you-go system easier and more convenient. The company also plans to double its locations in Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski — up to an eventual 30 — to ensure riders have some extra power as they traverse the hilly local landscape.

"We've doubled the fleet, made it more fun to ride and easier to get around," said Bryan Davis, senior transportation planner at the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, one of numerous organizations that helped launch the bike-share system three years ago.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Wood-Fired Power Plant in Ryegate Gets Two-Year Contract Extension

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2021 at 6:24 PM

Ryegate power plant - STORED SOLAR, LLC
  • Stored Solar, LLC
  • Ryegate power plant
Vermont lawmakers are throwing a two-year lifeline to an aging wood-fired power plant to give its new owner time to make the facility more efficient.

The state Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to require state utilities to continue purchasing power from the 30-year-old Ryegate plant through 2024.

That’s far less than the 10-year power deal that the plant’s owner, Stored Solar, and some lawmakers had been hoping for. The current power contract is up in 2022.

The 20-megawatt facility burns 250,000 tons of wood chips per year from trees in Vermont and New Hampshire forests. The $7 million the plant spends, usually on trees that can’t be turned into higher value products like lumber, is viewed as vital to the rural economy and economic viability of region’s forests.

Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), in whose district the plant is located, sponsored the original bill seeking the decade extension. She said she was “obviously disappointed with the shorter timeframe.”

Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) explained the plant was built 30 year ago as an experiment in renewable electricity, but that it is inefficient and — even after pollution reduction upgrades a decade ago — dirty when compared to other energy sources.

“The plant is no longer competitive,” MacDonald said. “If we were going to buy base power, we would buy it from other sources.”

The plant — which burns chips to make steam that spins turbines to generate electricity — operates at 23 percent efficiency. By comparison, biomass plants like Montpelier's that create heat can operate at 70 percent efficiency, he said.

New Hampshire has stopped subsidizing its biomass electricity plants for similar reasons. Those plants' subsequent closures and the destruction last year of a large wood pulp plant in Maine have reduced the markets for wood chips and created a surplus.

This means loggers and foresters from New Hampshire would like try to sell their chips to Ryegate. Senators had difficulty having Vermont subsidize other states’ wood products industries, MacDonald said.

The extension would give the owners time to explore ideas for capturing and using the waste heat the plant produces.

If the owners can’t, McDonald said, it would be up to future lawmakers to decide whether to grant an extension anyway. The state pays about $5 million more for Ryegate’s power than it would from non-renewable sources, according to the Department of Public Service.

If that subsidy went away, lawmakers have expressed concern that the plant would close and yet another market for the wood would dry up.

To prepare for that possibility, the bill calls for the state to prepare by March 1, 2022 “a contingency plan to address how to reduce the economic impacts that may occur if the ... power plant closes.”

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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Vermont Reinstates Ban on Utility Shutoffs During Pandemic

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2020 at 5:44 PM

A Green Mountain Power meter. - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • A Green Mountain Power meter.
Vermont regulators announced Tuesday afternoon that they would reinstate a moratorium on utility shutoffs during the ongoing state of emergency caused by the pandemic.

The Public Utility Commission restored the moratorium following the expiration of a state program that offered more than $8 million in financial aid to people who had fallen behind on their power, water, gas, internet and phone bills.

“Vermonters need to be able to keep the lights on, their homes warm, and their phone lines open as they survive the winter months of the pandemic,” PUC chair Anthony Roisman said in a statement.

The original March 18 ban on utility shutoffs, part of a suite of emergency rules passed during the early days of the pandemic, came at a time when stay-at-home orders were in effect.

Regulators lifted the ban on October 15 in an effort to steer people toward the financial aid available through the Vermont COVID-19 Arrearage Assistance Program. Lawmakers dedicated $8.8 million in federal relief dollars toward the aid program, which was due to end on December 15 but was extended a week.

Regulators say lifting the moratorium helped more people get the financial assistance they needed. A total of 10,630 people received relief from the program as of December 15, and a few hundred more applications have been processed since then, according to the Department of Public Service, which advocates for ratepayers.

A number of organizations, including Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, argued for the reinstatement of the moratorium, citing the recent spike in infections and predictions of a difficult winter ahead.

“The case could not be clearer that the temporary halt of involuntary utility disconnections must be reinstated immediately and continue through the duration of the state of emergency,” David Koeninger, deputy director of Vermont Legal Aid, wrote in a petition filed with the PUC.

Without the ban, Vermonters “could be driven into unsafe situations that may include seeking refuge with friends or family in violation of the statewide ban on multi-household gatherings, which could in turn contribute to a worsening of the pandemic,” Ben Edgerly Walsh, director of VPIRG’s Climate & Energy Program, wrote in support of reinstatement.

It’s unclear if the latest $900 billion in federal stimulus funding will include additional financial aid for utility customers behind on their bills.

Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, and others have pledged not to disconnect customers during the pandemic — with or without a moratorium. As of December 14, more than 6,500 GMP customers had benefited from the assistance program, according to the utility, which supports the moratorium reinstatement.

Another 27,100 GMP customers remain 60 or more days behind in their payments, totaling $14 million. Burlington Electric said 2,865 customers were more than 30 days behind on their bills, but the utility reported no shutoffs during the pandemic.

Some utilities worry that expanding the moratorium without additional financial aid will result in more and more customers getting behind on their bills this winter, then owing sums they can’t afford to pay. Despite the moratorium, customers will still need to pay unpaid power bills.

The Vermont Public Power Supply Authority, which represents 11 town-owned electric utilities, argued the moratorium “would not be in our customers’ long-term best interests.”

Its members “remain concerned that the Moratorium acts as a disincentive for customers to communicate with their utilities about unpaid balances and will result in customers accruing balances that they are ultimately unable to pay.”

In its statement, the PUC stressed the need for customers to work with their utilities on payment plans to avoid building up unmanageable balances or being disconnected when the moratorium ends.

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Monday, December 21, 2020

Vermont Is Not Joining the Transportation and Climate Initiative

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2020 at 5:44 PM

Accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles is one goal of the Transportation Climate Initiative. - TRANSPORTATION CLIMATE INITIATIVE
  • Transportation Climate Initiative
  • Accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles is one goal of the Transportation Climate Initiative.
Gov. Phil Scott is not yet ready to sign Vermont up for a multi-state agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, despite it being a decade in development.

Officials in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., on Monday pledged to join the regional compact known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Eight states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic area, including Vermont, signed a related document pledging to stay involved in the planning process but opting not to join the program at this time.

Scott has long expressed concern that the agreement would force Vermonters to pay more for gas, which has only deepened during the pandemic, said Peter Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, who has represented Vermont in TCI discussions.

Scott also wants to monitor initiatives by the incoming administration in Washington and the work of the new Vermont Climate Council before committing to the compact as it is now structured, Walke said.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

University of Vermont Announces Plan to Divest From Fossil Fuels

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2020 at 5:34 PM

The University of Vermont campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The University of Vermont campus
After years of pressure from students and activists, the University of Vermont has announced plans to phase out investments in fossil fuel companies.

UVM's board of trustees on Tuesday endorsed a plan that will prevent any new fossil fuel investments and require the university to cease any existing commitments in the coming years. At a press conference following the vote, president Suresh Garimella said the decision "marked an important milestone" in the university's long-standing leadership on environmental issues.

"By voting today to divest the university's endowment of fossil fuel investments, we're extending a tradition of significant and decisive steps the university has taken that set UVM apart," Garimella said.

Fossil fuel companies comprise about 6.7 percent of UVM's $536 million endowment portfolio, including direct, commingled and private investments.
Student activists have repeatedly argued that UVM's financial support of the worst contributors to climate change undermines its commitment to sustainability.

But trustees have resisted the demands and rejected several proposals over the years on the argument that divestment would limit the endowment's potential growth and jeopardize the university's financial future. 

“Our primary responsibility is to protect the endowment,” David Daigle, a former border member, said in 2013 when the board shot down a divestment proposal, the Burlington Free Press reported. "My continuing fear is that this proposal would have a significant impact on the ability to balance the risks and rewards within the endowment by cutting out a substantial portion of the economy.”

The university has defended its investment portfolio by highlighting other sustainable efforts, such as its Clean Energy Fund, which campus leaders say has contributed more than $1.5 million in dozens of green campus projects. 

But critics weren't satisfied. Last year, student activists formed a group called Organize UVM that has continued to demand the university divest, bringing more than 100 people out to a January board meeting.

In response, UVM trustees created the Sustainability Work Group to explore the concept further. The group met four times since March and received more than 420 public comment submissions prior to adopting its recommendations, which the trustees approved on Tuesday. 

As part of the pledge, the university will immediately end new direct investments in fossil fuels, fully divest from any public fossil fuel investments by July 2023 and allow any pre-existing, multi-year private investments to lapse. UVM stopped acquiring the latter in 2017, and trustee Ron Lumbra estimated the final commitment should expire by the end of the decade, though  the vast majority of investments will be ended within the next three years.

The board will also ask fund managers to "factor the financial risks of climate change into their investment decision-making process," according to a press release.

UVM joins three other Vermont colleges — Goddard, Sterling and Middlebury — that have committed to divestment, a step taken by more than 1,000 organizations worldwide, according to gofossilfree.org.

At his press conference, Garimella commended students for their continued advocacy. "I'm really proud of the way they approached this issue in a constructive — and therefore, I think, effective — fashion," Garimella said.

Lumbra agreed. "The board appreciates all the research they conducted and their sincere effort to understand the full complexity of the issue," he said.

At the same time, the trustee acknowledged that financial considerations factored heavily into the decision. He said the long-term outlook of fossil fuel stocks have become bleak due in part to the rise of the green economy, which has in turn offered new and profitable ways to invest in sustainable companies.

"The world's changed," Lumbra said. "The opportunity for us to divest now, and do it in the right way, and keep the mission of the university focused on the environment, all came together at this time." 

Organize UVM noted the board's vote in an Instagram post that praised the efforts of both current and former students.

"This could not have happened without each and every 3k+ of you who signed our petition, came to a board meeting, a regular meeting, posted, emailed a board member, or showed your support in any way," reads the post. "It also would not have happened without the 10+ years of fossil fuel divestment movements before this one."

Noting that UVM remains "far from perfect," the group vowed to continue its efforts.

"But for now, we celebrate," the group wrote. "Thank you all for fighting to protect our planet!"

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Green Mountain Power Asks to Delay Rate Increase

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2020 at 4:52 PM

Nick Stanhope checking the status of one of Green Mountain Power's grid-level batteries. - FILE: KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • File: Kevin McCallum
  • Nick Stanhope checking the status of one of Green Mountain Power's grid-level batteries.

Vermont’s largest electricity provider, Green Mountain Power, has asked regulators to delay its April 1 rate increase due to the coronavirus' impact on customers.

The utility was planning a 2.7-percent increase in rates to reflect rising costs, including for storm damage and power purchases.

But the company is looking into “deferring or delaying” that increase until July 1, according to Ed McNamara, planning director for the Vermont Department of Public Service.

McNamara mentioned the possibility during a conference call with lawmakers Tuesday. GMP officials made the request with the Public Utility Commission on Monday. 

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