Vermont Electric Co-op – Carbon Free by 2023

Episode ID S1X02
October 08, 2021

Vermont Electric Cooperative has committed to procuring a zero-carbon emission power supply by 2023. In this bonus track of Power Plays, CoBank’s Teri Viswanath and Tamra Reynolds speak with Rebecca Towne, CEO of Vermont Electric, to learn more about how the initiative fits within the co-op’s long-term strategy and how co-op members are embracing the transition to cleaner energy sources. Towne also talks about the opportunity for rural electric co-ops to help lead their communities through the clean energy transition. 

Vermont Electric Cooperative

Transcript

Teri Viswanath: Welcome to Power Plays extended play series, a short podcast series of interviews with influential electric co-op managers that are innovating. I'm Teri Viswanath, the lead economist for power, energy, and water at CoBank. Our extended play content is actually a five-part series recorded to celebrate National Co-op month in October. In the second of our series, my co-host Tamra Reynolds, managing director at CoBank sits down with Rebecca Towne, Vermont Electric Cooperative's chief executive officer. Rebecca has nearly two decades of utility experience in Vermont with a strong focus on team building, leadership, and strategic innovation.

Vermont Electric Cooperative, the state's largest member-owned electric utility, has pledged to move to a 100% carbon-free power supply by 2023. The Johnson-based utility serves about 33,000 members in 75 communities in northern Vermont, and the carbon-free decision was made by the board of directors to reflect member demand for clean energy and to meet the state's goals to fight climate change.

In meeting that goal, Vermont's members have a really important role to play. As these members start to adopt electric vehicles, heat pumps and transitioned to non-fossil fuel energy use, they're basically cleaning up their own carbon footprint, which in turn impacts their cooperative in the state. Here is Tamra's conversation with Rebecca.

Tamra Reynolds: In today's podcast, I'm speaking with Rebecca Towne, CEO of Vermont Electric Co-op. Good morning, Rebecca.

Rebecca Towne: Good morning.

Tamra: Earlier this year, Vermont Electric Co-op committed to procuring zero carbon emission power supply by 2023 pledging a longer-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable power supply by 2030. Why was this project important for your membership, Rebecca?

Rebecca: Thanks for having me on to talk about this. This was an important commitment for our membership, for our board. We have a 12-member elected board of directors, like all cooperatives, who represent our 33,000 members and they work hard to make meaningful decisions like this one and figure out how to do that in a way that serves our memberships best. In our member survey over 70% of our members told us that they would support a small financial impact to move to a 100% carbon-free or a 100% renewable.

Our board spent a lot of time educating themselves on all of the pieces that would go into this commitment, everything from understanding renewable energy, credit markets and our own standards in Vermont. We were already required to reach 75% renewable by 2032, so this commitment is above and beyond. Our board felt strongly, on behalf of our members, that they really wanted to do what we can do in terms of making a commitment towards reducing our impact on the climate in a way that was responsible and continuing to serve our members.

Tamra: Walk me through how this pathway towards clean energy will evolve. Will it involve members? Will it involve different tools at your disposal? What does that look like?

Rebecca: Great question. Our initial strategy is a power supply contracting strategy. We do not ourselves own any generation, although we own parts through contracts. 2023 is not that far away and our team is already working hard on how to meet our 100% carbon-free commitment. We were already 75% of the way there, so it's really piecing together that last 25% in an affordable way. That's the first strategy.

However, as you mentioned, our members already have an important role to play and that role will only grow over time. As they start to adopt electric vehicles, heat pumps and transition their personal heating and transportation to non-fossil fuel, then they can basically be cleaning up their own carbon footprint, and on behalf of Vermont, be able to clean that up as well. That's one way that they will play is just by moving their own equipment to non-fossil fuels into electrics. Even electric lawnmowers, that's been a really popular move lately. I have one, they work great.

We also know that operating the grid cost effectively will be increasingly complex, as more intermittent renewable sources come on, we know that maximizing the grid that we have will be incredibly important and members have a role to play here too. Just as an example, right now, we actually just rolled out a program to allow members to purchase their own residential battery, and in return for an incentive, we pay them that offsets, the cost of the battery a little bit. They allow us to manage that battery to minimize our peak loads at certain times. We're doing that with utility scale batteries, but members can also get involved.

The benefit for them is that in addition to being able to participate in this program offsetting the cost of that battery, they're building their personal resilience and moving off fossil fuel generators onto these very easy, very clean batteries. As more and more members move to these types of devices, these programs will be a critical part of managing the flow of our power supply.

Tamra: Wow, that's a great example of some of the innovations and ways that you're using members and educating them really at the same time. It's a dual benefit that they get to take part in it but also understand how it makes a difference at the utility level. How do you always seem to stay in front of the needs of your membership and really keep on top of what they're looking for and trying to find ways that maximize the value that utility brings but also keeping the members first in mind for how you're planning?

Rebecca: We talk a lot about making sure that we have programs that serve all our members. Some members just want to turn their light switch on, have it work, and pay the lowest bill possible. Other members want net-metered solar and a residential battery and energy efficiency improvements as well as technology that monitors all of that in real time. We talk a lot, at VEC, about how our job is to serve all of those members and to meet them where they're at.

We also spend a lot of time involving all of our staff in thinking about innovation. Actually, our strategic plan has three categories. There's lead with people, which is about employees and our members. It's lead with responsibility, which is just around running a reliable, affordable, it's the mission-driven part, and then leading with innovation and how to balance all of those things to make sure that we're investing every year in each of those areas.

Tamra: Is there any other information about Vermont that you want to share? Anything else that you're looking at in the next three to five years that maybe is important to note.

Rebecca: I'd also talk about a couple other projects we have going on that I'm excited about. Not all as member-focused, but one of the things that we're looking at is we're working with two startups. One startup is a weather company. It's a weather data company. It speaks to the intersection of data and weather and how important those things are particularly in these times of increasingly devastating weather.

This project looks at hyperlocal weather forecasts and compares that to the damage that same weather forecast caused on our system infrastructure in past storms. It effectively gives us a pretty specific estimate of where and how much damage we might see based on that weather forecast in each of our districts and regions, which is incredibly valuable. We're just working through it. It's been really fun. There's lots of starts and stops and trials, but I think the end result is going to be incredibly valuable not just for VEC but beyond.

Then the other projects that we're looking at is using our automated meter data, even down to the residential level, to see if we can figure out during times of peak load who are the highest users, what are the highest lines that are using the most energy. We can take some of these programs that I mentioned before and really target some of those initiatives. We can do some very specific reach out so that we can make the most of the infrastructure that we have and really get these programs off the ground.

Tamra: I'm really excited about some of the cool stuff you guys have coming on. I did not pose this in the previous questions, but I'm really curious, how are you guys looking at EVs, and do you have a time of use rate? Or is that a precursor to this data stuff that you're talking about with AMI load?

Rebecca: Great question. I mentioned our strategic brainstorming and electric vehicles was a big topic and we talked about electric vehicles and our own fleet. Our whole team is very excited about the F-150 Lightning coming out, and looking at also some hybrid bucket trucks. We're looking at vehicle-to-grid and whether there's some early opportunities for us there if we can support some schools we serve with electric school buses.

Then, of course, just the question of how to continue to drive adoption of electric vehicles. We have some incentives for both the home charger and the electric vehicle itself, but a lot of our role I think is really educational, helping people understand first how fun it is to drive an electric vehicle. I think that's a good starting point, and from a knowledge perspective, I want to make sure we're right there, right next to our members helping them understand how to do that. From a grid perspective, I want to make sure that we are seamlessly reliable even as all of this intermittent load starts to play out on our system.

Tamra: That's all I have. Rebecca, thank you so much for your time today. It's really been fun to talk with you and learn a little bit more about Vermont Electric and some of the initiatives going on there. It looks like you guys are really set up for some success in the years to come. I look forward to watching that and seeing you guys succeed with your members. Thank you.

Rebecca: Great. Thank you.