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Reginald Beliveau Commentary: The value of public power


VCRD is working with the Town of Swanton through our Climate Economy Model Communities program. This article shares some of its progress.

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When you flip the switch, the light goes on. For many people in this country, it’s an act so commonplace that it rarely requires a second thought.

But Vermonters are thinking about electricity more thoroughly. We’re questioning whether it comes from a clean, renewable source. We’re putting aggressive climate goals into place to ensure our future is powered sustainably.

When Swanton Village’s 3,781 customers flip the switch, they’re tapping into a 100% renewable source. Most of our electricity comes from our local hydropower plant, the Orman Croft Generating Facility, which has been providing clean energy since the 1800s. What’s even better is that Swanton Village customers pay some of the lowest rates in the state. In 2017, our residential rates were 25% lower than the average Vermont rate.

Affordability and renewability are important to us because they’re important to our community. The Swanton Village Electric Department is a public power utility, meaning we are publicly owned and democratically run, much like a public library or a public school. We’re governed by customers who are our neighbors, friends, and even family. Community members influence how we operate just by showing up to our monthly open meetings and voicing opinions.

We are one of 14 municipal public power utilities in the state, together serving one of every seven Vermont electricity customers. Individually, our customer base tends to be small; the village of Orleans, for example, keeps the lights on for just 669 homes and businesses in the Northeast Kingdom and the village of Jacksonville serves only 714 customers in southern Vermont. In 1979, several public power utilities joined together under the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (VPPSA), which helps us provide services comparable to a larger utility.

Operating in a tight-knit community has advantages. Because we live in the neighborhoods we serve, we relate to the issues our customers face. Franklin Foods is a major employer in the village of Enosburg Falls, a rural town in northwest Vermont. In 2005, the company considered an out-of-state move to reduce costs. Recognizing the devastating impacts this could have on the community, the public power utility developed a contract to lower Franklin Foods’ electricity bills. That move helped keep 85 Vermont jobs in place.

Vermont public power utilities provide green energy at an affordable price. Historically, our local hydropower facilities have been the economic backbone of renewability. But times are changing, and we’re looking for new ways to add renewables at a low cost. Last spring, VPPSA utilities celebrated as our Trombley Hill Solar project went online in Morrisville. It produces enough energy to power 208 Vermont homes and its renewable attributes are shared by nearly every electricity customer in the state. Trombley Hill Solar was the only project of its kind developed in 2019. With two more similar projects in the works, public power is bringing Vermont closer to our goal of 90% renewable by 2050.

Collaboration is key to meeting customer needs and state goals for fossil fuel reduction. Swanton Village is participating in the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Climate Economy Model Communities Program, cultivating a partnership with Efficiency Vermont and Vermont Gas Systems to help our community save energy and money. Working together, we have provided more than 100 free energy visits. These assessments help home and business owners understand the most cost-effective ways to lower their heating and electricity bills. Our integrated approach has increased participation and reduced customer confusion about utility roles.

We hope you’ll celebrate with us during Public Power Week, from Oct. 6th-12. On Saturday, Oct. 5, there will be a Public Power Day celebration on the Swanton Village Green from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Check out Swanton Village’s big rigs, test drive an electric vehicle, and tour through a zero energy modular home. On Tuesday, Oct. 8 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., you can grab a cup of coffee at Black Cap Coffee & Beer in Morristown while chatting with Morrisville Water & Light utility managers and learning about weatherization. On Wednesday, Oct. 9, Northfield Electric Department customers can join us from 4:30 p.m.-7 p.m. at Good Measure Brewing to learn about saving money and reducing energy use.

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Reginald Beliveau, the Village of Swanton general manager and chair of the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority board of directors.