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Renewable Energy at our NY and VT Statehouses

The Empire State Plaza in Albany. Kurtman12208, released to the public domain. www.bit.ly/3cTIzwv

George Harvey

Two of the states in the Northeast made some progress with renewable energy projects at their statehouses recently. One is New York; the other is Vermont. The changes made at these statehouses address entirely different issues in entirely different ways.

The issue in New York was a change in plans for energy at the Empire State Plaza in Albany. Changing plans might not sound like much, but in this case, it has huge consequences. The issue is heating and cooling for the New York State Capitol and the buildings at the Empire State Plaza, which stand before it.

The capitol building, which dates to the 19th century, seems big, until we consider the size of the Empire State Plaza (ESP), which was built in the 1970s. The ESP is made up of ten buildings, five of which dwarf the capitol building visually. The largest of these is the 44 story Corning Tower, the tallest building in the state outside of New York City. Four buildings, called the agency office buildings, are each 23 stories. These buildings were built in the period 1965 through 1976.

Heating and cooling the government buildings at the Plaza was done using steam from a heating plant in the neighborhood of Sheridan Hollow. This plant was connected to the buildings it served using an underground pipeline a half-mile long. The energy came from burning coal, oil, natural gas, and trash. It was polluting, and the people who lived in Sheridan Hollow suffered the consequences.

In 2015, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) proposed installing a microgrid at the Sheridan Hollow site that would provide both heat and power for the government buildings. Not all microgrids are equal, however. In this case, the heat source for the microgrid would be natural gas.

While breathing the exhaust from a natural gas plant might be marginally better than breathing smoke from coal and trash, natural gas is hardly a solution to pollution or climate change. So predictably, there was opposition to the plan. This opposition came to a head when Jay Egg of Egg Geothermal and Keith Schue, technical advisor for Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy (SHARE), pointed out some of its flaws. One was that the plant would be rendered obsolete by current law well ahead of the end of its expected lifetime, because it would become illegal to operate it. Another problem was that natural gas was already not the least expensive way to get the heat and cooling.

In 2019, the NYPA changed the original $88 million plan to a combination of solar power and geothermal, authorizing a $30 million budget. And now, the plan is on a trajectory to save the money of people who pay taxes and the health of people who breathe. Egg and Shue were awarded the 2020 Constellation Prize for Policy Impact for their work on championing renewable energy and moving Empire State Plaza away from fossil fuels.

Another change has come about at the Vermont State House in Montpelier. In terms of scale, it is more modest, but it is also uniquely forward-looking. The State of Vermont now has an emergency backup system that will provide clean energy for its statehouse in the event of power failure. Interestingly, it is the first state to have such backup for its capitol.

Vermont State House in the fall. Bob P. B. CC-BY-SA 2.0. www.bit.ly/2QmSPpr

Describing the work done to achieve this, Vermont Governor Phil Scott said, “I know many think clean energy must be more expensive, but the work done today shows not only can we reduce carbon emissions, but if we are strategic, we can also save money in the process.” He can be seen speaking on the effort in a video at www.bit.ly/Vermont-battery.

The statehouse had been reliant on a diesel generator to provide backup power in the past. Switching to the new battery system is expected to save the state $44,000 over the next ten years because the costs of fuel and maintenance of the diesel system are much higher than the cost of a new battery. Another aspect to this is that unlike the diesel system, the battery can switch on automatically, without delay.

The battery system at the statehouse will also help support the grid by providing it with power as it is needed. This adds to the savings for the state, but it also reduces energy costs of all customers of Green Mountain Power.

A number of organizations and businesses contributed to the switch to battery power for the Vermont statehouse. They include a team from Renewable Energy Vermont, Northern Reliability, Dynapower, Green Mountain Power, and others. Also, Governor Scott thanked the legislature for its help on the issue.

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