Should state mandate battery storage to keep lights on, electric rates down?

Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 5:31 PM EDT
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HINESBURG, Vt. (WCAX) - Energy on demand despite the weather-- that’s what’s driving the need for more energy storage technology in Vermont. Everyone wants more capacity but there’s disagreement about who should be calling the shots.

Utility-scale energy storage for the Vermont Electric Co-op sits off Richmond Road in Hinesburg.

“I see storage as being key to the transition to renewable energy,” said Craig Kieny of the Vermont Electric Co-op.

The co-op is planning another, similar-size facility in North Troy in collaboration with Green Mountain Power to deploy energy strategically to offset expensive power purchasing from the grid when we need it most.

“We save that money and that savings we distribute to the whole membership,” Kieny said.

While utilities are bolstering storage capacity in the Green Mountains on their own, lawmakers are mulling over a study to create a roadmap for the technology.

“What targets and policies the state needs to set in order to have sufficient battery storage,” said Sen. Anne Watson, D/P-Washington County.

A bill introduced in the Senate would create a study committee to answer those questions.

Vermont currently has about 68 megawatts of storage capacity deployed or in planning, across the state, that’s roughly power for 35,000 homes for several days. But Watson believes we need more and faster.

“If we are going to make this transition, we need to set targets, we need to set policy requirements that help us move toward our goals and our requirements,” she said.

Utilities aren’t opposed to the study group but they are deploying the technology regardless of the Legislature.

Green Mountain Power has 40 MW of storage deployed through microgrids, utility-scale batteries and home Powerwalls, that’s power for roughly 20,000 homes for several days. GMP says last year, the technology saved customers $3 million on their electric bills.

But the future isn’t just savings, it also requires the batteries to keep Vermonters out of the dark in emergencies.

“The biggest benefit, the thing we are trying to move the quickest on is resiliency-- storage in homes, keeping the lights on when there is trouble,” said Josh Castonguay of GMP.

Some, though, want to ensure if we double down on storage technology, it is equitable and doesn’t inadvertently raise rates.

“To look at how we can deploy energy storage in a way that avoids those two problems,” said Louis Porter of the Washington Electric Co-op.

The Department of Public Service says we have studied storage technology before and chose to let utilities chart their own paths.

“Having a specific procurement mandate for storage, in particular, is putting blinders on to some of those other solutions,” said Anne Margolis of the Vt. Public Service Department.

Instead of mandates or requirements, regulators believe the focus should be broader and emphasize the usage of all solutions, in collaboration with stored energy.

“We need to leave the flexibility to select the right tool at the right time to meet the goal that’s laid out,” Margolis said.