Computer model helps look at state’s energy future

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(Host) For months, a cross-section of Vermonters has met to discuss the state’s energy future. The group is using a computer model that looks at the economic, social and environmental impacts of various energy scenarios.

But as the process nears its end, consensus on the state’s energy choices remains elusive.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The group that has met every month or so in the Statehouse has worked hard to check politics at the door. Members are taking part in energy planning workshops that use computer software to project the impact of different energy scenarios. It may be a computer model, but there are some real-world elements to the exercise.

For example, some environmentalists back a plan that calls for 275 wind turbines to be built on the state’s ridgelines. But the model points out a potential financial pitfall. Vermont utilities may not have the cash or credit worthiness to back this scale of wind energy development.

Researcher Marjan Vander Belt explains how the model works.

(Vander Belt) “So whenever the model simulates a situation where there is an investment need of this magnitude, this alert message pops up. And then you can just resume it and just keep going and then it says .. hmmm the maximum potential for large wind in Vermont is basically 200 megawatts. So you’re right at that.”

(Dillon) The participants in the mediated modeling workshops are getting to the hard part. They’re trying to narrow the list of energy options that the state may want to consider. The different scenarios may set the stage for a broader discussion among policy-makers and the public at large.

But as the discussion gets detailed, some major differences emerge. The future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is one clear dividing line.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, wants the model to take into account some measure of risk if the plant keeps operating after 2012.

(Burns) “And as I think about education and informing the public, I think about what are the big choices available to them. And I don’t think there’s a bigger one than whether or not Vermont Yankee will continue to be part of our energy mix beyond 2012.”

(Dillon) Brian Cosgrove of Vermont Yankee says the Legislature, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Public Service Board will all study Vermont Yankee issues in depth. But the model, he says, should stay clear of politics.

The Yankee issue points out one aspect of the group’s work. Maryann Vander Belt says participants are trying to factor in externalities -environmental costs that don’t directly show up in bills, as they focus the range of energy choices.

(Vander Belt) “And based on that can we come up to a narrower set of portfolios or is it going to stay as wide as it is now and let people make up their own minds by playing with this structure looking at the various trade-offs.”

(Dillon) The group has one more meeting scheduled in October. After that, energy planning leaves the rarified realm of computer models and enters the legislative, public and political arena.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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