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Vermont Utility Too Lazy To Build New Power Lines, Wants To Give Customers Home Batteries Like It's The Future Already
Next they'll be putting 'solar' 'panels' on customers' roofs.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels means electrifying everything, but to do that, we’re going to need a hell of a lot more transmission lines, a more better grid, and smarter ways to manage power coming from wind and solar, as well as integrating home solar and battery systems into the grid — to say nothing of just plain getting more rooftop solar with battery backup into people’s homes and apartment buildings. It’ll all be expensive, but not nearly as costly as doing nothing, seeing as how as of October 10, 2023, the US has already experienced 24 separate billion-dollar extreme weather/climate disasters, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Some of the necessary grid enhancements will require national-level changes and bills passed by Congress, like fixing the Kafkaesque process of approving new grid connections and building interstate powerlines (the answer is not to say the hell with endangered species).
But a lot can already be accomplished by smart use of the resources already available, as one smallish utility in Vermont wants to do: Instead of building a lot more power lines or bringing on new generating capacity, Green Mountain Power wants to install batteries in most of its customers’ homes (New York Times gift link), so they won’t lose power due to grid problems anymore. And when enough of the roughly 270,000 homes and businesses the company serves have those batteries, Green Mountain Power can draw on all that distributed storage to meet energy needs systemwide. The utility laid out its battery plan in a filing with state utility regulators Monday.
Despite our “funny” headline, none of that precludes eventually building more power lines, adding new grid-level solar or wind power, or greatly ramping up rooftop solar. If anything, having a lot of batteries throughout the network will make all those solutions more effective. Heck, if the local utility has already installed a battery for you, a rooftop solar installation just got a lot more attractive and financially doable (plus of course there are those sweet sweet tax incentives from Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act).
Most of them make money by building and operating power lines that deliver electricity from natural gas power plants or wind and solar farms to homes and businesses. Green Mountain […] would still use that infrastructure but build less of it by investing in television-size batteries that homeowners usually buy on their own.
“Call us the un-utility,” Mari McClure, Green Mountain’s chief executive, said in an interview before the company’s filing. “We’re completely flipping the model, decentralizing it.”
Green Mountain, the story notes, has a little extra incentive to make its grid more resilient with all those distributed batteries, since Vermont had its own weather disaster this summer, with severe flooding in July and several other severe storms that knocked power offline. The company calculated that the savings on storm recovery — about $55 million so far this year — as well as the cost of building new transmission lines would be higher than getting batteries into customers’ homes and businesses. Plus, Green Mountain already has the tech in place now, though on a smaller scale.
Green Mountain’s plan builds on a program it has run since 2015 to lease Tesla home batteries to customers. Its filing asks the Vermont Public Utility Commission to authorize it to initially spend $280 million to strengthen its grid and buy batteries, which will come from various manufacturers.
All told, Green Mountain estimates it’ll invest $1.5 billion in the battery project over the next seven years, on the batteries and other grid improvements like burying some power lines and upgrading others to better resist heavy weather. The project will be paid for through electricity bills, because while Green Mountain is innovative, it’s no co-op. (Speaking of which, we need to do a story soon on Maine’s referendum, coming in November, to create a statewide public power utility nonprofit to buy out and replace its commercial electric utilities, how cool is that? Needless to say, the utilities are spending big against it.)
The full project to install batteries for most customers will take until 2030 if the regulators approve it; Green Mountain will continue battery leases for customers who want to get storage into their homes and businesses right away. The company plans on rolling out the batteries and grid enhancements to customers most at risk of losing power due to extreme weather.
And as we mentioned up top, the scheme involves a preview of the way most utility grids will operate in the renewable energy future: Instead of the model we have in most of the country now, where electricity is generated by big power plants and delivered through the grid to customers, the future grid will be far more distributed, making use not only of big solar and wind farms (and yeah, we’ll keep nukes and probably add some too, so feel seen, you nuke people), but also drawing power as needed from home solar, home batteries, and even from EV batteries, which may as well do some good while they’re parked.
As the Times ‘sp[ainers,
Green Mountain would control the batteries, allowing it to program them to soak up energy when wind turbines and solar panels were producing a lot of it. Then, when demand peaked on a hot summer day, say, the batteries could release electricity.
This is pretty exciting stuff, and an important part of getting the clean energy transition going at the local and regional level while the larger issues of permitting and grid reform are being worked out:
A May report by the Brattle Group, a research firm based in Boston, concluded that utilities could save up to $35 billion a year if they invested in smaller-scale energy projects like home batteries and rooftop solar panels that can be built more easily and quickly.
Green Mountain’s proposal seems to recognize that reality, said Leah Stokes, an associate professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It really is the model, especially if you’re worried about power outages,” she said. “It really could become the example for the rest of the country.”
Well for Crom’s sake let’s hope so. Tune in and turn on (the battery pack).
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