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Vermont's Top Utility Wants To Transform The Electric Grid

Angela Evancie for VPR

The Beacon 10 Stirling – black, with a glowing blue light, and about the size of a large chest freezer – emits a constant low hum. And this one, in the basement of the Essex Resort & Spa, converts natural gas into electricity, enough electricity to power an average-sized home.

It’s just one of the technological innovations on offer at NRG Energy, a national company that is about to use Vermont as a testing ground for its products and services.

“This is a prototype that we have here, but we believe that that’s a great example of where we can be in the frontline of bringing these kinds of innovations to our customers,” Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, said at an event Tuesday.

Vermont’s top electric utility is teaming up with one of the largest energy companies in the country. And executives at Green Mountain Power and NRG Energy say they want to build the electrical grid of the future right here in Vermont.

Powell says products like the Beacon 10 can be used to transform the way power is delivered to Vermonters.

While the existing grid, with its endless string of poles and wires, may have served the country well during the 20th century, Powell says it’s become incredible costly to maintain in the 21st.

“When mother nature rolls in, it’s twigs and twine – it’s twigs and twine,” she says. “And we’re spending millions and millions of dollars every year trying to fortify the twigs and twine.”

Powell is among the utility executives laying big bets on a new energy distribution model, a model that relies less on large, centralized energy producers, and more on small, scattered electricity generators.

Not only does the concept encourage the use of renewable energy sources, namely solar, it also means electricity doesn’t have to travel nearly as far to get to customers. And by converting the old grid into a series of quote “mini-grids,” Powell says Vermont will minimize energy costs while reducing carbon emissions.  

Gov. Peter Shumlin, one of the dignitaries on hand for the announcement of the partnership between GMP and NRG at the Essex Resort &  Spa Tuesday morning, said he’s on board.

“It’s going to transform in my view the way we do power,” he said. “It’s going to transform the way we do energy.”

But Powell says GMP can’t do it alone.

“We’re one of the smallest companies in the country,” she says. “We can’t afford to hire scientists and inventors and pay for them to kind of figure out these next big things.”

Enter NRG Energy. Headquartered in New Jersey and Texas, the multi-billion dollar energy company is as bullish on distributed energy as Powell and Shumlin. And CEO David Crane says he’s eager to use Vermont as a testing ground for products such as electric vehicle charging stations, electricity storage units, and small-scale solar arrays.

“For us, it’s the perfect size place and location to integrate on a scale that’s meaningful, but, you know, not starting with New York City, for example,” Crane said Tuesday.

GMP has signed a contract with NRG, but Powell says the document won’t tie the utility’s hands, or prevent it from working with other energy firms. Crane says NRG will likely sell products and services to Green Mountain Power, which will in turn sell them to Vermont ratepayers.

Crane says he wants Vermont ratepayers to have a window into whatever financial transactions NRG conducts with GMP, a publicly regulated utility.

“We don’t expect to do it for free,” Crane said. “But I think the way it’s currently contemplated is it would be done on an open-book, cost-plus basis, so there’s full transparency as to what the costs are.”

Shumlin introduced Crane and Powell after meeting the former at a green energy conference in California last year.

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