University of Vermont

Christopher Clement Examines Vermont's Transition to Renewable Energy

Graduate student research profile

Christopher Clement, doctoral student in the Rubenstein School
Christopher Clement, doctoral student in the Rubenstein School

One of the most important dilemmas confronting the developed world this century is determining how to adapt our current energy infrastructure system to meet the demands of modern civilization. The energy infrastructure that enabled the unprecedented economic development of the past 75 years is increasingly ill-suited to cope with decentralized and intermittent energy generation, net energy supply constraints, shifting demand dynamics, and weather volatility due to climate change.

Reconceptualizing the energy system is crucial for the future development and prosperity of regions, states, and nations far beyond the state of Vermont. With its unique combination of a small, politically active population, effective state and local policymakers, and progressive orientation, Vermont is an excellent testing ground for experimenting with different approaches to the renewable “energy transition.” With my dissertation research, I have aspired to contribute to this paradigm shift.

With the ratification of the Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) in 2011, Governor Shumlin’s administration set forth an ambitious vision for the transformation of the Vermont energy system—90% renewable energy generation and 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 1990 baseline by 2050. Recognizing that Vermont currently gets 23% of its energy needs from renewable sources puts into perspective the enormity of this task. In fact, Vermont’s plan for the "energy transition" is precedent setting at the national level.

However, the achievement of the CEP goals will require a massive coordinated effort across state, regional, and local policy, energy infrastructure, technology, and information systems, as well as the cooperation of private industry, NGOs, and citizens. Precisely how this transformation occurs is a matter of intense debate among many stakeholders, with many differing views of what long-term policy scenarios are most feasible and desirable for the state of Vermont. Until recently, the state legislature and vested stakeholder groups were in need of a unifying platform with which to plan for this transformation.

Concurrent with a Vermont Public Service Department (PSD) study being conducted by Dunsky Energy Consulting from Montreal called the Total Energy Study, I have spent the last seven months developing a model called the Energy Futures Simulation (EFS) to explore the dynamics of changing Vermont’s energy system and evaluate policy and planning scenarios. In partnership with the Vermont Energy Action Network—instrumental in creating the CEP—and the PSD—responsible for implementing the CEP—I am using the system dynamics platform within the EFS to analyze stakeholder-generated policy scenarios around how to achieve the “energy transition.”

Over the course of the next year, I will be facilitating a mediated modeling process to refine and evaluate these different policy scenarios. This simulation modeling effort will ultimately inform the state legislature on what suite of policies to enact and what technology pathways to support in order to catalyze the initial steps of this decades-long process of achieving the "energy transition." The issues being debated in this process—for instance, whether to enact a carbon tax while maintaining equity, or what emphasis to place on the development of in-state resources such as wind, solar, and biomass versus the impact on the cherished Vermont landscape—are fascinating not only in their complexity, but also in that they foreshadow the policy debates that will take place across many locales, states, and nations in the years to come. 

My research has been supported by UVM’s Smart Grid Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), funded by the National Science Foundation, and the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics. I have also benefited from fruitful collaborations with my advisors, Jon Erickson and Asim Zia, as well as the Energy, Climate, and Infrastructure Security Group at Sandia National Laboratories.