Green Mountain Power plans to end blackouts by 2030. How realistic is that?

This month, Green Mountain Power shared a huge announcement that caught the attention of the energy sector. Vermont says it has a plan to end power outages for its customers by 2030.

Most power outages come from problems with local distribution lines such as a wind gust that knocks down a tree branch and then falls on a transmission line that carries power from a substation to a home or business.

Vermont Public Affairs’ Jane Jarecki spoke with Green Mountain Power’s President and CEO, Mary McClure, to learn more about their plan. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity. Gene began by asking Mary how they plan to make power outages a thing of the past.

What we are proposing here is a phased and comprehensive approach. The first phase is to put our distribution lines underground, which are located in very, very rural areas of the state. These are the lines that serve, you know, a few customers, maybe a mile or two long, and we’re looking to find them underground. And secondly, the main feeders – those are the lines that come out of the substations across Vermont and go into towns and communities across the state in both rural and urban areas of the state – we’ll look at central and southern Vermont and put very strong isolated lines on those main feeders. Now this will protect against outages caused by trees and branches, which is, in fact, most of the outages we see. The third three-pronged approach is to store energy for all Vermonters. We look forward to providing energy storage to last mile customers who are very far away. The good news about warehousing is that it not only provides flexibility for the customers and communities in which we have it, but it also saves costs for everyone. We can use that stored energy when the grid is not down to save costs for all Vermonters.

In terms of energy storage, Mary, we’re talking about backup batteries, right? Will you say more about those?

GMP President and CEO Mary McClure

GMP President and CEO Mary McClure

Yes, in general, when we say energy storage, we are talking about batteries. However, batteries can take different forms. So you get the residential storage space that someone might have in their home. We’ve had those things for eight or nine years now in Vermont, and energy storage may also be in the form of the technologies we’re seeing in transportation. Now, the cost of this technology for most Vermonters is out of reach, but we believe it will decrease over time. More and more people will have flexibility in their home gateways so we can connect to their homes for flexibility and network connectivity, saving costs for everyone.

How will these energy storage options work when power is cut from the grid for more than 48 hours, for example?

My truck, which is a 131 kWh battery pack, is about 10 or so Powerwalls – if you’ve heard of the Tesla Powerwall. My F150 Lightning equates to 10 of those power walls. So, I could spend five full days at my house while the network was fixed. We really see a world where Vermonters can, for anywhere from three to five days, stay powered by storing energy in their homes and communities.

The good news about warehousing is that it not only provides flexibility for the customers and communities in which we have it, but it also saves costs for everyone. We can use that stored energy when the grid is not down to save costs for all Vermonters.

Mary McClure

Do the batteries that Mary is talking about are owned by GMP or do they lease from a company like Tesla? You mentioned the Powerwall backup battery. In this case, if it is a rental, what does it mean to repair these batteries?

Our current software is a lease or bring your own software, connect it, and you know, we provide the expertise to help them connect it to the network, as well as make it flexible for your home. This initiative envisions that as part of our service to the people of Vermont and to our customers, we will provide these batteries just as we would provide a meter. Just as we have substations, just as we have subway lines or overhead lines, part of how we bring down costs for everyone and part of how we bring our network into the technological future that we live in now, we see that as our goal role of providing these to our customers over time. Of course, all of this is subject to approval. This is a file we made, and this is our business plan for how to look at the weather properly and do something about it. As we mentioned, the times call for bold and aggressive action. That’s what we believe this plan does. We believe we have the hearts and minds to partner with our customers to accomplish this.

What kind of threat does climate change pose to reliable energy as extreme weather events become more common?

It is the biggest threat to the network. This is the challenge in our lives. There is no doubt that we live in the middle of it. We have challenges caused by climate change, and we see that here as we provide electric service throughout the state. We’ve had six major storms in the past year, which is the most we’ve ever seen. And it’s not even just one year. If you look over the last five to 10 years, we’ve had some of the worst storms we’ve ever seen. You know, we have to look at this differently. That’s what this plan is. That means we say, hey, Vermont, not only do we see what’s going on there, we’re also Vermonters. I’ve lived through it, I’ve exhausted my strength. Everyone here has had the same experience and we really believe that this is not only our responsibility, but we also live here and want to see Vermont as the most resilient state in the country.

A power transmission tower with power lines coming to and from it stands against a blue sky with pink clouds.

Green Mountain Power’s plan to end power outages is the first of its kind.

We thought it would be helpful to get an outside perspective on this initiative, so Vermont Public Relations’ Jane Jarecki sat down with Dennis Wamstead, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, to learn more about Green Mountain Power’s plan. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Okay, Dennis, how important is the Green Mountain Power announcement?

Green Mountain Power’s announcement is very important. They have been at the forefront of the transformation into a more agile and customer-focused electricity distribution company for a number of years. I first wrote about their battery storage and solar projects in 2021, when they were still just out of the pilot phase. But the project, the approach is just a great idea. It’s a win-win for all customers at Green Mountain Power. I mean, every taxpayer in Vermont would benefit from this particular system.

I recently spoke with GMP President and CEO Mary McClure. GMP says the road to zero is paved with a three-part plan. So, the backup power lines are stronger above ground, burying more lines underground, and providing remote customers with backup batteries. To your knowledge, Dennis, are there any other facilities in the country taking similar steps?

Dennis Wamstead

There are other facilities facing exactly these same types of problems. Especially a remote customer where you have one, 50, or a few customers served by a single trunk line. And so, if there’s a storm or, you know, an outage on that line, you have a lot of unhappy customers, and there’s only one way to fix that. However, if you took the path that Green Mountain Power is looking at now — and some other utilities in California that I know have been doing similar things — where you go that route and install battery storage, you would have allowed customers to stay online, not at 100%. They can’t run every appliance in their home for 24 hours, but they can keep the essentials online and they won’t lose, you know, food and their refrigerator, while the utilities make the repairs needed to get the transportation system back up and running. So, I mean, this is an issue for a lot of utilities across the country, and Green Mountain Power has been at the forefront of thinking about how to address this issue. I don’t usually give utilities credit for a lot of the things they do, and I think Green Mountain Power deserves credit.

So, it seems that even the most technologically advanced backup battery will provide power for five days at most. But as McClure pointed out, last winter found some Vermonters without power for about 14 days. So, how reliable are these backup batteries in the face of severe storms caused by climate change?

Well, that’s a great question. The short answer is that it is 100% reliable for the power density you want to put into the battery. They are the reliable part of the equation. Now, the problem here, of course, is that you can always conjure up a potential storm that would, you know, destroy the entire infrastructure in Vermont. We wouldn’t be able to find that specific result if you wanted to. I mean, I think we should be honest about that. The system will not be able to protect us from all possible risks. The way I see this program in Green Mountain Power and other battery storage applications is that it gives you cover for a period of time that will withstand most storms and most disturbances. I think this is a very important improvement from where we are now. There will be storms that will overwhelm this type of program, but the program itself in my view is still very valuable because it gives you cover for, you know, 60, 70 or 80% of potential storms, and maybe not the last 20%.

…There’s always going to be that storm, or that series of events that we can’t really predict that will cause a power outage.

Dennis Wamstead

Stick to batteries for just one question. I also asked McClure about the fact that GMP would not own these batteries, but would lease them, and that these companies often only have their technicians work on their products. Therefore, GMP relies on technology that it cannot service. Does this pose problems for Vermonters who rely on these backup batteries?

I do not think so. The utilities are your go-to entity as you interact with them and deal with them, but they don’t do the maintenance for most of their gas turbines. People who sell their gas turbines, such as Siemens, General Electric, Mitsubishi, or some of the larger manufacturers, will do a lot of maintenance and repair work at these type of facilities. The fact that you’re relying on outside expertise to maintain and repair batteries to me is somewhat of a continuation of where we already are, currently in the electrical industry. This doesn’t worry me while I’m on the road.

Dennis, what role does Vermont play in GMP, being a leading figure in the utility space? Does the state’s small size and population allow them to be more creative when solving problems?

I think if the small size of the country allowed them to be more creative, there might be more willingness to think outside the box. Vermont utility regulators have been very willing to take up this issue with Green Mountain Power over the years. In many ways, I mean, Green Mountain Power, they presented their projects or presented their projects well, defended them well and showed that they would be, you know, beneficial to all customers. But ultimately, regulators still have to approve it.

We hit this a little bit. Dennis, you’re an energy analyst, and you call this the “Zero Blackouts Initiative,” which is very ambitious on its face. In your opinion, ultimately, how feasible is the GMP plan and do you think it will actually end service interruptions for customers?

I’m, as I said, an energy analyst, and I’m also a realist, and that’s not going to eliminate outages. These are the facts of life that we have to deal with and we have to acknowledge. Obviously, the tool wants to sell this software, and they deserve, you know, the ability to do so. This could be their goal, and that is a very laudable goal. You know, as I mentioned earlier, there’s always going to be that storm, or that series of events that we can’t really predict that will cause a power outage. So, getting to zero, I don’t think that’s possible. As we get closer to zero, I think this is possible.

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