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Comments on the 2015 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan

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Comments on the 2015 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan

  • CRC

Submitted to the Vermont Department of Public Service on behalf of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, Vermont Council Trout Unlimited, and Lake Champlain International

Comments by section:

  1. 22-23, 3.2: The paragraph addressing the importance of maintaining healthy forests should recognize the critical role of intact forests in maintaining water quality and natural hydrology, particularly in the face of climate change and the resulting changes in rainfall frequency and intensity, drought and snowfall.

The paragraph beginning at the bottom of page 22 and continuing to page 23 addresses water quality. It includes this sentence: “Dams, including those used for hydroelectric production, can impact water quality; investment in dams to install or increase hydroelectric production should also maintain or enhance the hydrodynamic properties of the river.” This statement should be amended to recognize that ALL dams have a negative impact on some aspect of water quality. Further, the final clause about investment in dams should be expanded to “maintain or enhance” not only a river’s hydrodynamic properties but also water quality and aquatic habitat.

  1. 50-51, 5.1: This section does a good job of recognizing the challenges of developing new energy projects while continuing to support more traditional land and water resource protection objectives. The paragraph addressing rivers is very well written.
  1. 216, 11.2: This section states:

Development of local renewable technologies such as biomass, wind, solar, and hydro will contribute to meeting the goals set by the Legislature and in the CEP, and be responsive to the wishes of Vermonters as expressed during the broad public engagement processes held for the purposes of revising the CEP.

Given the ongoing and significant opposition to various kinds of renewable projects in communities throughout Vermont, is it accurate to characterize the “wishes of Vermonters” as being supportive of developing local renewable technologies, the public engagement process notwithstanding?

  1. 217-218, 11.2.1: The first paragraph does not place adequate emphasis on the impact that large energy developments have on natural resources. With respect to hydroelectric dams, such development does much more than “preclude many other uses of that same parcel.” This wording implies that the affected reach will not be available for such things as whitewater boating or some other human activity. While that is true, these dams also affect upstream and downstream flooding; aquatic habitat in the impoundment, bypassed reach and downstream; water quality, sediment, and nutrient transport. This section should not minimize those impacts, especially on waters of the state, a public trust resource.
  1. 233, 11.2.2.4: This section emphasizes the importance of maintaining existing in-state hydroelectric generation. The plan notes a point that is frequently overlooked, that is, that existing hydroelectric facilities occupy a “large fraction” of all of the state’s potential hydropower sites. It points out that many of these facilities were developed many years ago, and goes on to state that the “loss of such systems could result in an irreversible loss in in-state hydroelectric generating capacity.” Further, on, it points out the importance of hydropower facilities in providing “valuable diversity” in concert with other renewable resources.

Language should be added that acknowledges most old facilities were developed prior to enactment of the Clean Water Act and other state and federal legislation (and their associated rules, like the Vermont Water Quality Standards) designed to minimize impact to the environment. As these projects are brought into conformance with current environmental standards, either through FERC relicensing or a state-level process, decreases in production may result, although the station capacity may not change. Reducing or eliminating environmentally damaging hydropeaking (and the streamflow and impoundment level fluctuations caused by it) and releasing higher conservation flows are often necessary for old facilities to conform to the Clean Water Act, decreasing power production. The recommendations in this section should include language that supports these changes in operation to reverse some of the environmental harm that has been caused by these projects, the production reductions notwithstanding. The plan should also recognize that increased efficiency or additional capacity is possible – and should be encouraged – at some facilities through capital investments in these plants.

One of the recommendations is for utilities to acquire independently owned hydroelectric facilities if ratepayer costs could be lowered. Another reason for utilities (and other major independent hydropower companies) to acquire facilities from small operators is the utilities ability to bring additional resources to bear for efficiency or capacity upgrades as well as infrastructure and systems that will improve operations. Larger operators also tend to be more capable of operating their projects in compliance with the conditions of their operating permits and are often more capable of maintaining facilities to a high standard.

  1. 346, 13.6: This entire section fails to acknowledge that hydropower is, ultimately, an environmentally destructive power source, directly affecting aquatic ecosystems in ways that cannot be mitigated. Hydro will have an ever greater impact as drought and rainfall patterns change because of climate change, decreasing the resiliency of our streams and rivers. Because of this, it is short-sighted to build new hydro projects as competition amongst water users will only increase for diminishing water supplies. Such conflicts are already taking place in some parts of the U.S., especially in the western states. However, similar conflicts on a smaller scale have occurred in parts of the Northeast and Midwest, and are likely to grow worse as rainfall patterns change. Therefore, increasing hydropower in the face of climate change will have an overall new negative impact on the aquatic ecosystem environment, not a positive one.
  1. 346, 13.6.1: The statement that hydropower “is renewable [and] has low emissions of GHGs…” is not strictly true. Section 13.6 deals with Hydro-Quebec, which comprises massive hydroelectric developments that obliterate entire ecosystems. While the Vermont legislature may have anointed it as such for policy purposes, the ecosystems destroyed for Hydro-Quebec power production are not “renewable.” Further, the GHG emissions (primarily methane) resulting from flooding large land areas are significant and well documented.

This section also contains a policy statement that “Vermont should preserve its use of the local hydropower resources and support environmentally sound hydropower development in the state.” The inclusion of “support environmentally sound” is an important positive statement, but it should be clear that meeting Vermont Water Quality Standards is what is meant by “environmentally sound” and that meeting these Standards is a higher priority than maintaining production at existing facilities.

  1. 347, 13.6.2: The recent history of hydropower development would be more complete by noting that the revival of interest in hydro development over the last decade is due in large part to economic incentives. It is also worth noting that the sites that are currently undeveloped are those that did not make sense economically during the rush to develop projects in the 1980s, or are projects that were developed during that period and subsequently failed. In other words, there is very little “low-hanging fruit” remaining.

The antidegradation policy in the Vermont water quality standards requires that, for waters that currently exceed the minimum standards, there can be no significant lowering of water quality from the current condition to that minimum standard. In light of that, the last paragraph of this section should be rewritten to read:

Current state policy continues to support the development of in-state hydroelectric projects when it is determined that they are financially sound and allow the river or stream to meet all of the Vermont Water Quality Standards. This policy achieves the objectives of helping Vermonters meet their long-term energy needs with low-cost renewable resources – hydro projects represent the least expensive power currently being generated by Vermont utilities – if the project will not compromise the river or stream in any significant way and result in that waterbody failing to meet Vermont Water Quality Standards.

  1. 347-348, 13.6.3: The plan should acknowledge that USDOE’s 2006 estimate of 434 MW is not considered credible by anyone familiar with hydropower in Vermont. That study was part of a project to develop a national estimate of hydropower capacity. It provides a theoretical maximum that includes all sites in the state, without any field verification. The 2007 DPS study also has methodological problems that cast doubt on its conclusions.

An excellent point raised in this section is the potential gains to be made by upgrading existing, operating projects, and the advantages of that approach – an approach that should be supported as it results in increased power production with little likely increased impacts on waters. Also, the possible addition of small hydroelectric turbines to existing water and wastewater infrastructure is another valid point, although the size and number of these projects is likely to be rather limited.

  1. 350-351, 13.6.5: This section begins with a good explanation of why the hydropower licensing/exemption process takes a long time. Then it goes on to state:

Some European countries have regulatory regimes that seem to facilitate hydro development, and some states have worked to streamline their permitting process. However, hydropower developers both in and outside of Vermont continue to be challenged by the length and expense of permitting, something state legislatures and the U.S. Congress periodically attempt to address.

This statement is offered without references or explanation, leaving the reader to ask, “Well, why doesn’t Vermont do that?” First and foremost, Vermonters have repeatedly made policy decisions that place a high value on water resources and their protection. Second, rather than proposing new methods that maintain existing water quality protections, every proposal for a “streamlined” process at either the state or federal level has involved lowering the standards of resource protection, reducing the level of scrutiny the project receives from state and federal resource agencies, compromising the public’s ability to participate in the regulatory process, or some combination of all three. Wisely, Vermont policy-makers have chosen not to follow that path. Until and unless water quality protections are maintained, streamlining the permit process at the expense of the protection of the public trust resource should be rejected.

  1. 351-352, 13.6.6: The plan states that one of the advantages of hydro is that it is less intermittent that wind and solar, so it can compensate for the intermittency of those two sources. Many of Vermont’s in-state hydro facilities have operating restrictions that limit their ability to make rapid generation changes. The trend for in-state facilities is clearly in this direction as older facilities come up for relicensing and new facilities are brought on-line. Consequently, their ability to compensate for fluctuations in wind and solar production may be somewhat limited. It is worth noting this physical reality.

The plan fails to explain that, unlike wind, solar and other renewables, poor operation of hydroelectric projects can, and often does, result in significant harm to the environment, such as dead fish, high and dry spawning habitat, and dewatered wetlands. That is not the case with wind and solar, where the facility simply produces less energy.

This section extols the economic benefits of hydropower with statements like, “[hydroelectric facilities] comprise a significant and low-cost portion of [utilities’] electric power portfolios” and hydroelectric facilities owned by municipal utilities “continue to play a major role in their ability to keep rates competitive for their customers.” The plan, either in this section or elsewhere, should note the importance of proper facility maintenance and the financial implications of maintenance costs. In some cases at least, municipal utilities have not invested in the facilities themselves to the point where some have been shut down due to equipment failure, and they will require major investments to resume operation or obtain new FERC licenses. Further, the “competitive rates” resulting from poor maintenance come at an environmental cost – significant water resource impacts.

As noted elsewhere in the plan, many existing hydropower facilities are old and fully depreciated, contributing to the low cost of operation. However, that can change, as old facilities have to be modified to meet current, or future, environmental standards – either due to their age or because of relicensing requirements. (Twenty hydroelectric projects are slated to begin relicensing in the next 15 years.)

  1. 354-355, 13.6.7: This section does a good job of noting the impacts and limitations of hydropower. We commend PSD for recognizing that instate hydropower is already heavily developed and the resulting impacts to the state’s rivers, and that the construction of new dams is not an option. It would be worth noting that the cumulative impacts of new hydroelectric sites would further fragment river and stream systems, exacerbating the impacts of existing hydropower facilities, other water withdrawals, and any activities that manipulate flow in streams and rivers. The plan should address the significant detrimental impacts that dams and hydropower facilities can have on rare, threatened, and endangered species. Finally, the plan should point out that attempts to mitigate the impact of dams, e.g., by building fish hatcheries, have proven to be expensive and ineffective.

While not one of the screening criteria for the Vermont Small Hydropower Assistance Program, it should be noted; somewhere that fish passage may be required at new and existing projects, adding considerable expense to the cost of development, operation, or both.

Footnote 361 should enumerate, or at least provide a few examples of, the “tools” that ANR has available to bring existing facilities into compliance with the Vermont water quality standards.

Finally, comments on two of the recommendations in this section follow.

Strategy 2(1): Commission a study of the economically developable hydro sites in Vermont, as an update and refinement of previous studies. Use this as a basis for Standard Offer, Clean Energy Development Fund, and other incentive development, and, possibly, for coordinated interagency support.

Any study that would be at all useful in identifying specific sites would be expensive, since it would involve field investigations and hydrologic and economic modeling. The actual potential is likely to be modest, verifying the conclusion reached in 13.6.3, “Under any assessment it is clear that the best hydropower sites have already been developed.” The reality is that a site-specific evaluation will be needed when a site is proposed for development, the results of any statewide study notwithstanding. Therefore, the study would not be a good use of public resources and this strategy should be dropped.

Alternatively, given that it is widely accepted that most hydropower sites in Vermont have already been developed, it would be valuable to examine where the capacity exists for increases in production at existing hydropower facilities without increasing – and possibly even reducing – environmental harm. This information could help utilities to focus on higher return on investment projects at existing facilities.

Strategy 2(3): Work with ANR to assess watershed-wide opportunities to increase hydropower (at existing dams or operations) while also decreasing the overall environmental impact of dams (through targeted removals of existing dams that have been determined as inappropriate for hydropower after a review of their hydroelectric potential and environmental circumstances.)

Investigating a hydro development and dam removal/river restoration plan at a watershed scale would be worthwhile. However, to build the public support for any proposed actions, it will be necessary to involve other interests in the process, beyond the two state agencies, as full partners in the process. Our organizations stand ready to participate if such an effort occurs.