Shumlin SUV appearance at green event underscores contradictions in ‘Net Zero’

GOOD FOR ME BUT NOT FOR THEE: Gov. Peter Shumlin arrived at a Net Zero renewable energy event Tuesday in a gas-guzzling SUV.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Gov. Peter Shumlin arrived at a solar energy ceremony Tuesday in a gas-guzzling SUV, and with no sunshine anywhere.

The optics blunder underscored some of the contradictions inherent in Net Zero Montpelier.

On an overcast morning that yielded no sunlight, state and business executives gathered on a barren hillside to celebrate the groundbreaking for National Life Group’s new solar farm, a 500-kilowatt solar energy project designed to help Montpelier become the first fossil-fuel-free capital in the country.

After driving up in his large, black Chevy Suburban, Shumlin stepped to the podium and spoke of our need to embrace renewable energy to save the planet and the economy.

“When we do a solar project like this, it not only does great things for the planet and ensures that our kids have a more livable future in a race against climate change, but it also means jobs,” he said.

“Renewables reduce power costs for Vermonters and put dollars in Vermonters’ pockets. In order to meet our goal of 90 percent renewable by 2050, we need to see more projects like this.”

Shumlin didn’t say how full-size SUVs fit into the state’s all-renewables plan.

Shumlin did say Vermont quadrupled the number of solar panels operating on the grid since he became governor, and he praised National Life for its participation in Net Zero Montpelier, a green city initiative that aims to make Vermont’s capital run entirely on sun power, wind, plants and water.

National Life Group is one of many Net Zero partners that have signed on to Energy Action Network’s growing list of businesses, renewable companies and utilities committed to ditching fossil fuels. The insurance firm’s new solar farm will supply both the company and local residents with solar-powered energy.

GOOD FOR BUSINESS: Mehran Assadi, president and CEO of National Life Group, said setting up a solar-energy farm is “the right thing to do.”

According to spokespersons at the event, 15 percent of National Life Group’s electricity will come from solar generation by the end of production. The 700-employee company boasts a wood-chip-fired heating system and LEED certified buildings.

Mehran Assadi, National Life Group’s CEO, said switching to renewables was a part of his company’s commitment to corporate citizenship.

“We are in the business of making promises to people in America that we need to stand behind 20, 30 years from now. Our business is about doing good and being good at what we do,” he said.

Before Shumlin drove off in his shiny SUV — every component of which is predicated on the existence of fossil fuels — he explained the role of tax credits and subsidies in making the switch to renewable energy.

“The (tax) credits are very important. The good news is, as the price of solar panels drops, solar becomes much more competitive. So we need subsidies now, but I believe moving forward solar is going to be competitive with other power generators,” Shumlin told Vermont Watchdog.

Since renewable energy sources are not economically sustainable and are inferior to traditional energy sources like natural gas, governments prop them up with tax credits and other taxpayer-funded aid.

The current renewable-energy tax credits, which are set to expire in 2016, offer a 30 percent dollar-for-dollar reduction in taxes owed to the government — plus accelerated depreciation. For National Life Group, that means the installation of its $1.2 million solar farm provides nearly a $400,000 tax break at tax time.

Shumlin said Net Zero businesses making the switch to wind and solar could count on favors from the state as well.

Photo by Bruce Parker

CRONY CAPITALISM?: Vermont’s goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 will be attained through government subsidies and forced purchase of renewable energy.

“Vermont’s been very aggressive in providing economic incentives for solar and other renewables. We do it through two systems: one is the feed-in tariff system, and the other is net metering, which makes it competitive for folks to build projects like this and put money in their pockets.”

Under Vermont’s feed-in tariff law, utility companies like Green Mountain Power are forced to purchase solar and other renewable energy for use on the grid. With net metering, companies like National Life Group build renewable energy facilities for their own use while also selling power to utility companies at a premium.

Regular rate payers are on the hook through higher heat and electric bills.

But for National Life Group’s CEO, going green is good for business and good for relations with the state.

“Sustainable energy is a big mantra of the state of Vermont, and it’s been the mantra of National Life Group … it’s the right thing to do,” Assadi said.

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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