Getting real with renewable energy

(Vermont Digger) Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve Comeau, a business intelligence developer in South Burlington, VT who designs and builds databases, reports and data visualization for the manufacturing industry. Vermont has set a statewide goal of powering 90 percent of its economy with renewable energy by 2050.

Many people believe that 100 percent of our electricity can come from renewable energy. Such a goal is not only unachievable, it also diverts action from realistic strategies that will benefit the environment and our energy future.

Electric utilities in Vermont try hard to present an image of being green and providing clean energy. But since the electricity that we use is part of a large interconnected system, it is better to think regionally instead of locally. Vermont is connected to the New England electric grid operated by ISO New England. It is this regional electricity grid that really matters when examining the environmental impact of the electricity that we use.

The ISO New England website provides real-time charts and trends that show the electricity generation fuel mix, system loading, and wholesale prices that are occurring in New England. This real-time data provides insight into the operation of this amazing electrical machine known as the electrical grid.

A vision of 100 percent renewable energy is a denial of the physics and engineering of the electrical grid.

The grid delivers reliable electricity to local utilities at the correct voltage and frequency, while the electrical load constantly changes throughout the day in the short term, and changes seasonally in the longer term. Maintaining a stable grid is a huge challenge that requires the coordination of hundreds of generators throughout New England to match demand across a wide geographic area. Power is also imported to the New England grid from Quebec, New Brunswick and New York state.

Electricity generation uses a variety of power sources which have different roles in the fuel mix:

• Nuclear power is the bedrock of generation, which typically provides 4,000 MW of baseload power, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It provides about 30 percent of electricity used and is the largest source of clean low-carbon energy in New England.

• Renewables including wood, refuse and wind make up about 9 percent of […]

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