University of Vermont in Burlington
The University of Vermont in Burlington. Credit: AlexiusHoratius / Creative Commons

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A new consortium in Vermont aims to capitalize on the state’s compact size and collaborative culture to make it a national role model for clean energy innovation.

The Vermont Clean and Resilient Energy Consortium will pursue federal grants to fund any number of projects related to clean energy delivery, renewable energy, decarbonization and energy resiliency. 

“We’re sort of an interesting laboratory for some of this because of our small size,” said Julia S. Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, which is a member of the consortium. “We have the opportunity to build these networks that I think would be challenging in larger jurisdictions.”

Kirk Dombrowski, the University of Vermont’s vice president for research, said the consortium came together after he began “cold calling” the heads of utility and energy companies, state agency heads, and energy-related nonprofits. 

“I have a new grant-writing shop here at the university, and we work with a consulting and lobbying firm in D.C. that can give us lots of good intelligence about research opportunities and programming coming out of federal agencies,” Dombrowski said. “So I put this value proposition in front of them — we have a lot more infrastructure than we did in the past to handle some of these partnerships.” 

The consortium is run by a steering committee made up of one person from each of the roughly 20 member organizations. Members who want to get in on a project have to pick up some of the cost, Dombrowski said. 

“If the DOE says, here’s an opportunity around, say, energy sheds, we will take it to the consortium and say, who wants in?” he said.

The emergence of the consortium comes as Vermont is advancing an ambitious climate agenda. The state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2020, set legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets of 26% below 2005 levels by 2025; 40% below 1990 levels by 2030; and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. 

A climate action plan adopted last December lays out more than 200 priority actions intended to move the state toward achieving those goals. 

The act’s binding obligations position Vermont well for innovation in the energy realm by “creating a sense of urgency,” said Chase Whiting, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont. And working together through a consortium to help solve the many challenges ahead is totally in keeping with Vermont culture, he said. 

“Vermonters have a really long tradition of rolling up their sleeves and engaging with community members to solve problems that affect the entire community,” Whiting said. “The town-meeting style of government is not a relic here.”

Innovation advantage

Utilities in Vermont have already demonstrated a willingness to innovate. Time Magazine recently named Green Mountain Power one of the most influential companies in the country for piloting a renewable-powered microgrid designed to power the rural town of Panton in the event of a major outage. Vermont Electric Cooperative is more than halfway to its goal of 100% renewable power by 2030, and offers incentives for customers to install battery storage systems and electric vehicle chargers. 

“We are innovating in a way that’s perfectly aligned with what our 34,000 members are asking for,” said Rebecca Towne, the cooperative’s chief executive. 

Vermont also has an innovation advantage in that it has more than 90% adoption of smart meters, digital meters that allow utilities and customers to track and manage the flow of electricity. Those meters provide a live data stream of real consumption on a statewide basis, which could benefit researchers in a number of ways. 

For example, a group of energy experts in the state has been wrestling with the daunting problem of how to manage an energy system in which most or all of your energy is renewable, said Professor Jeff Marshall, associate dean of research at the University of Vermont’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. 

“How do you deal with a grid where 80% of your energy is intermittent renewables, like wind and solar?” he said.

They anticipate tapping the years of accumulated smart meter data, and putting that together with weather stream data (wind, snowfall, etc.) to “try to figure out what kind of intermittencies we would have in the state, and how would we manage such a system,” Marshall said. 

The Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, known as VEIC, which consults on energy efficiency in 25 states and is the administrator for Efficiency Vermont, is also a consortium member. The nonprofit can rapidly transmit successes in Vermont to other states, as it is already doing with Vermont’s highly successful heat pump adoption program, said Rebecca Foster, chief executive officer. 

“That’s what we would like to see more of — using Vermont as this living laboratory to prove out the approaches that are going to be needed,” Foster said.

A divisive debut 

However, the consortium’s first official initiative has raised some eyebrows. Vermont Gas Systems, a natural gas supplier, and GlobalFoundries, a semiconductor manufacturer, are partnering with the university on a green hydrogen pilot project at the manufacturer’s Essex Junction facility.

The project involves running renewable-sourced electricity through an electrolyzer that will extract hydrogen from water, then piping that hydrogen into the boilers at the plant, said Thomas Murray, vice president of decarbonization technology at Vermont Gas. 

“Those boilers run on natural gas today,” he said. “This will blend 2% to 5% green hydrogen into a couple of their boilers.”

The project is intended to reduce the facility’s substantial carbon footprint, and, Murray hopes, develop a sustainable business model. 

But extracting hydrogen through electrolysis is extremely energy-intensive, said Whiting, of the Conservation Law Foundation. If the state had a surplus of renewable energy, that might make sense, as the green hydrogen could then serve as storage for that excess, he said. 

“But we don’t have that — we don’t have enough renewable energy,” Whiting said. “So using the renewable energy we do have in an energy-intensive process of creating hydrogen means we’ll be using less clean energy to run heat pumps and EVs, and using more dirty electricity to electrify our buildings.” 

Vermont Gas will fund the estimated $6 million project, but plans to apply for some funding from the Department of Energy’s $8 million clean hydrogen hub program, part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Dombrowski acknowledged that the initiative has its skeptics. But, he said, “we are in the question-answering business. I think that’s why Vermont Gas and GlobalFoundries reached out to us — can you help us figure out if this is good? The critics may be right, or they may be wrong. That’s what we want to find out.”

Lisa Prevost

Lisa is a longtime journalist based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." A native New Englander, Lisa covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.