Federal funding opens for rural renewables

Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 5:07 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s renewable energy goals could get a boost from a billion-dollar federal program aimed at rural areas. But questions remain about whether rural areas of the grid can handle the increased transmission load.

Electricity moves through transmission lines -- highways to move power over long distances -- and distribution lines -- similar to city streets to get power to homes. The more excess energy generated through renewable resources, the more that power requires transmission capacity, often creating pinch points in some rural areas.

“The grid that was built to bring power to those places, in many cases, isn’t well suited to export power out of those locations,” said Tom Dunn with the Vermont Electric Power Company, which manages the local grid. He says that smaller renewables like solar panels on a house shouldn’t overload the grid. But in some areas, too much large renewable generation could slow down the system. “There are better places to put solar than others.”

Southern Vermont, for example, has more capacity than northern part of the state. But getting renewables plugged in to rural areas will also require other considerations.

“There isn’t just any one solution, it really is how we manage the grid,” said T.J. Poor with the Vermont Department of Public Service. That means some upgrades to existing transmission and distribution infrastructure will be necessary. Poor says deployment of battery technology is also a potential solution as well as changing consumer behavior to use less electricity during peak demand periods. “It’s definitely something we are watching closely.”

The Department of Public Service says infrastructure upgrades are going forward that will prevent the kind of curtailments that force major renewable producers like Kingdom Wind and the Sheffield wind project, to shut down at times because of transmission capacity.

Sarah Waring with USDA Rural Development says they are aware of the energy distribution challenges and that it’s important rural Vermonters aren’t left behind and that new federal funding targets those communities.

The application window for the Rural Energy For America Program opened this month. Rural farmers or businesses are invited to apply for energy systems or energy improvements under the federal Inflation Reduction Act.