We will not be driven, but we can be led:
one Vermonter’s vision for a consumer-driven clean energy future
By Guy Page
A couple years ago I participated in a Department of Public Service stakeholder discussion group about the Clean Energy Plan. A supporter of strict, enforced, top-down energy generation and consumption mandates was explaining why “the masses must be driven.” I responded somewhat impulsively, “do YOU like to be driven?” The answer was a baffled “no.” Then I asked, “Why is it okay to drive anyone else?”
Forcing Vermonters to accept something they find more harmful than good — such as a carbon tax and ridgeline wind — violates the implied golden rule that underpins our Constitution and state law. A state energy policy built on unpopular, top-down mandates is not sustainable. When people perceive measures as harmful and ill-conceived, their all-important citizen and voter cooperation declines. Precious time, human capital, and money is wasted striving for an important goal (emissions reduction) via policies Vermonters do not and will not support. One need look no further than the backlash against post-2014 ridgeline wind development, pension fund divestment of fossil fuels, and carbon taxation. All of these ideas have effectively failed, after consuming much valuable time, political capital, and money.
If Vermont is to be a true leader in carbon emissions reduction, our energy policy leaders must lead, not drive, the citizens they serve.
I contend it is more Vermonter-friendly and therefore in the long run more effective to offer creative tools and choices that motivate and empower us to use cleaner energy, and less of it. Real change happens when the masses drive themselves to a clean, prosperous energy future. Below please find a sampler (not intended as comprehensive) of choice-driven, consumer-motivated clean energy policy proposals in the three legs of energy demand: transportation, heat, and electricity.
Transportation — 45% of total Vermont carbon emissions
First, what won’t work — a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) for transportation. With most RGGI schemes, polluting states pay the clean states. Because Vermont has virtually no FF power generation, the existing RGGI multi-state power compact is a sweet deal for Vermonters. But it would be a terrible deal for transportation, because Vermonters are high-mileage FF-powered drivers (who also heat our homes and workplaces with FF). A transportation RGGI would be a carbon tax in which the revenue goes to other states — surely the worst of both worlds, and a prime example of attempting energy ‘progress’ through punishment.
Electric Cars. Sticker sense may soon replace sticker shock. A DOE laboratory scientist told me last year that that a car battery equivalent with internal combustion in cost, range and durability may be ready in 2022. The subsequent willingness of big carmakers like Nissan to offer huge rebates has moved the tipping point even sooner. A Burlington area Nissan dealer sold 151 Leafs this summer as part of an aggressive promotional program that dropped the price of a new Leaf to less than $11,000, and now Shearer Chevrolet is following suit with deep discounts for EVs. Conclusion: the market is speedily driving itself to clean, electric transportation, and does not need to be “driven” with a carbon tax. Vermont can instead encourage this trend with more charging stations, promoting smart phone apps for finding charging stations, perhaps offering an EV tax holiday, and developing fair EV user-based alternatives to the gas tax.
Mass transportation must remain a priority because long single-occupant commutes and traffic jams are a two-fer waste of human productivity and fossil fuels. Vermont can improve mass transit access and fuels, and increase ride-share and carpooling with:
Clean-fuel buses. GMT is adding two electric buses, paid for by a federal grant. The Volkswagen settlement funds could be used to further expand the state’s commuter bus fleet.
More public transit routes. A three-year, 100% grant for the Jeffersonville — Burlington commuter route ends this year. Two beneficiary towns, Jericho and Underhill, did not set aside $9,000 each as a good-faith “match” for continued post-grant operation. Proposed action: Chittenden County senators can work with GMT to write letters of support to the Jericho/Underhill newspapers (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), and co-ordinate with town officials to speak at informational meetings, etc.. Also, towns can seek volunteer drivers for VA and GMT to deliver patients to doctor’s appointments.
Commuter rail. David Blittersdorf’s proposed Burlington — Montpelier diesel rail is an emissions improvement over single-car commuting. The State of Vermont should encourage state employee and corporate (e.g. National Life) participation, while stopping short of an actual taxpayer-funded subsidy.
Car Sharing. Commuter access to the Go Vermont! car share, ride-share, commuting network can be made more robust at no extra cost by better use of free publicity, through co-operation of Vermont media. I recommend an exploratory meeting of Gov. Phil Scott, Go Vermont!, other pro-renewable transportation groups, and VPA Pres. John Flowers of the Addison Independent (email@example.com).
Bicycle sharing. Vermont can reduce emissions in the urban core by increased access to bicycles. A “pilot” urban bicycle sharing system such as Boston’s Hubway needs bikes, racks, and locations. This task is well-suited for a B-Corp. As for rack locations — I know at least one Burlington developer who would be receptive. Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard said in January 2017 his city wants relief from double-taxation of its municipal garage. Proposed action: grant tax relief with the condition the garage hosts the racks onsite, gratis. The racks might also reduce traffic in downtown Winooski.
Residential/commercial heating fuel — 22% of VT carbon emissions
Enforce existing building codes. Right now enforcement is uneven and builders don’t like it. Last year I visited the VT Homebuilders and Remodelers board with my brother in law Mark Groleau of Groleau Construction in Barre. I asked if greener building codes would be a good idea. No, they said, many new home-buyers expect and will pay for extra efficiency. But government inspection of existing codes is hit and miss, they said. Enforce what’s there and efficiency will improve. Pick the low-hanging fruit first. Proposed action: in oversight capacity, the Legislature and Executive Branch can recommend better enforcement to appropriate state, local agencies.
Fast track development for energy-efficient, affordable housing. California Gov. Jerry Brown last year sought (unsuccessfully) for “of right” development approving efficient, affordable housing in zoned urban areas by administrative review only, bypassing the design review board. Gov. Brown, Michael Renner of WorldWatch in his 2016 toolkit book Sustainable Cities, and President Obama in his 2016 White House affordable housing toolkit, agree: the length and uncertainty of design review kills good, needed new housing projects. Proposed action: determine if Gov. Brown’s plan for “of right” development would suit Vermont’s new housing needs, especially in the urban core. Promote pilot “of right” conversion of hideous “zombie lots” to high quality housing.
Further incentivize clean-burning wood heat. We can do more. We have embraced Vermont food from field to table, let’s embrace Vermont heat from forest to home, be it gasified furnace or pellet or wood-chip burner. I heard DOE Secretary Moniz tell a 2014 energy summit at Middlebury College that each state must find its own best way to clean air, using its own assets. Vermont is 78% forested, with 4.5 million acres. At present our trees absorb 55% of all Vermont manmade Co2. In Australia planting trees is the major carbon sink strategy. Vermont could add significant acreage for a sustainability two-fer of carbon sink and source of cleaner, renewable fuel. Forests of course also offer other significant environmental and economic benefits. Possible actions:
1. Consider enhancement of clean wood heat rebates. One modest proposal: dedicate the $1.9 million in the CEDF/ARRA fund, now ticketed for solar and wood renewable projects, to wood only. Also, portions of the VY settlement could fund clean wood heat.
2. Ask Gov. Scott to task the Governor’s Council on Energy and the Environment to work with state foresters and/or the forest industry to inventory forestable land and develop a plan to maximize carbon sink and harvest potential.
3. Co-generation — Burlington is considering sending steam from the McNeil plant to heat large buildings in the city. Support co-generation, when it’s affordable. Montpelier’s downtown wood-fired thermal plant is operating very efficiently, but was very expensive to build, requiring significant federal funding. Similar efforts also would require non-VT taxpayer funding.
Incentivize battery storage and cold-weather heat pumps, consistent with developing technology. The challenge of these technologies is the “new” factor and the high purchase and install price. Gov.Shumlin was pretty good at alerting the press when GMP unveiled new battery programs. In late November I asked Gov.-elect Scott how new tech would get us to 90% renewable. He cited battery projects by an Edison company, and by researchers in Boston. I did some research and found a 2016 DOE program to improve transmission grid battery storage, including projects by Commonwealth Edison in Chicago and Fraunhofer in Boston. Proposal: Co-operate with utilities, Public Service Dept. to offer more incentives and information. Since then, I have learned that senior VELCO leader will be leading a new company tasked with computer-based optimization of grid efficiency.
Recognize that fossil fuel dealers want to promote cleaner choices. They are offering them! Furthermore, they quietly provide assistance to low-income, needy consumers — that’s a valuable, private sector buffer against energy insecurity. Do not punish them or their customers with higher prices and fuel bans and litmus tests, which are onerous to administer and foster planning instability for industry. I am haunted by the story of a little girl living with her low-income father in a Barre Town mobile home; she went to school dirty and smelly because her father simply couldn’t afford to heat the house or run the hot water heater. The solution to this hidden problem wasn’t government, it was intervention by compassionate fuel dealers. Proposal: engage the Vermont fuel industry as partners, don’t treat them as the problem.
And finally: I offer two “niche” ideas that reduce emissions, create green jobs, and add real estate value, with little negative financial impact on Vermonters or state funding:
· Tiny houses. Replace zombie lots and poorly-functioning mobile home parks with landscaped PUDs of attractive, ultra-energy efficient “tiny houses,” such as developed by Norwich University. This is suitable for both urban in-fill and rural development. In general, families are getting smaller and are willing, according to a prominent Burlington developer, to swap smaller living spaces for socially attractive, energy efficient homes with modern amenities.
· Green roofs are as yet under-appreciated in Vermont. Growing vegetables on a “green roof” scores a hat trick of sustainability goals: superb energy efficiency, stormwater reduction, and locally-grown food. When I was a roofing contractor (2006–10), I wanted to develop this niche couldn’t but find anyone who did it; there are more installers now. Possible action: 1. Imitate the Washington DC green roof rebate program. 2. Promote green roof benefits and current education opportunities on state Ag and Economic Development websites.
Third slice of the emissions pie chart — Electricity — 11%
Consider another nuclear power “buy”. At present nuclear power comprises about 14% of Green Mountain Power’s portfolio. It is affordable and as zero-carbon as hydro, wind and solar per kw/h, according to the U.S. EIA. GMP acquired with the CVPS merger an ownership share of Millstone in Connecticut. The Jan. 24 2017 Hartford Courant reported that Millstone is seeking new customers. In 2015 VT utilities signed two PPAs with Seabrook, both scheduled to run through 2034. Proposal: give utilities an affirmative regulatory green light to buy more nuclear power.
Prioritize municipal hydro. The 1 million kw/h Morrisville Water & Light Dept. dam on the Green River Reservoir may cease operations because ANR wants the reservoir drained less to protect aquatic species. Some accommodation is needed to keep that dam, and others like it, in operation.
Prioritize potential energy generation development of Vermont Yankee site, with adjacent switchyard. The Town of Vernon wants to continue its tradition of providing clean, cutting edge power generation (Vernon Dam 1909, Vermont Yankee 1972) with (among other proposals) a “microgrid” facility. The adjacent switchyard alone makes the site highly valuable for an energy generator. Public Utilities Commission approval of NorthStar’s decommissioning plan is a prerequisite; without it the plant will be mothballed for up to 60 years.
Investigate future power from the New England Clean Power Link. The NECPL is a proposed 1,000 MW high-voltage, direct current underwater and underground cable project, delivering Quebec hydro-electricity primarily to Southern New England. It recently received DOE, ISO-NE, and Vermont Public Service Board approval, and is scheduled for operation by 2019. In addition to being a major proposed source of Lake Champlain cleanup money, Vermont has an option to buy significant amounts of clean, reliable hydro power in 10 years — perhaps sooner. Whichever Quebec-New England transmission project is awarded the contract next year, Vermont should consider a power purchase if/when possible.
“Third shift” power contract from Canada. Growing demand for cheap overnight power to charge home batteries and electric cars may make attractive a “third shift” power contract for low-carbon power with Hydro-Quebec. At present our power line capacity is “maxed out” during the first and second shifts (speaking in general terms), but the low-demand “third shift” hours still have some capacity. Furthermore, Quebec has said in plain terms, through a three-nation North American pact in summer 2016, and through a recent mammoth power deal with Ontario, that it has power is for sale. Proposed action: seek Department of Public Service, utility advice on advisability, timing, and likely cost of this power buy.
And finally, Vermont must realize the national and foreign policy implications inherent in the name of the problem it seeks to solve: “global warming.” Vermonters, and certainly the nation, are leery of throwing themselves “once more into the breach,” risking financial and lifestyle sacrifice if the rest of the world is hanging back, watching and sipping coffee. Vermont’s most effective emissions reduction strategy may be engagement/social governance with energy leaders out of state, and out of nation:
ESG (Environmental/Social/Governance) engagement with major corporations. Treasurer Beth Pierce has made herself the U.S. state treasurers association inhouse expert on the benefits of engagement vs. divestment re: fossil fuels in pension funds. A study she commissioned earlier this year noted that divestment would accomplish almost zero in carbon emissions, while stockholder engagement would likely prove more fruitful.
ESG with foreign nations. Internationally, China and India are held relatively harmless by international agreements. Through our congressional delegation, our climate change leaders like Bill McKibben, and National Conference of State Legislatures, of which Curt McCormack is the Vermont representative on the energy task force and a Massachusetts legislator chairs the international relations committee, Vermont could show true world leadership by putting ESG pressure on China and India. Not only would Vermonters feel less singled out, they might also better understand how the developing world also faces difficult decisions — for example, South Africa’s biggest coal generating plant is owned by the largest primarily black owned and operated company, a member of the Vermont treasurer’s office told me earlier this year.
Other areas for potential market-driven energy success could include a Burlington-area Greentown Labs, a clean energy innovation incubator space. Ranger Solar, a major player in Vermont’s solar scene, is a graduate of GL’s Somerville, MA location. And although Vermont is already a leader in demand-side management, there is always room for improvement, perhaps especially in outcome/performance-based management of Efficiency Vermont, the state’s “efficiency utility”.
In short — the path to cleaner air needs fewer mandates and more ideas, cooperation, and leadership. The masses won’t be driven. But the people are waiting to be led.
This column was submitted October 11 to the Vermont Climate Action Commission for consideration in its recommendations of energy policy to Gov. Phil Scott. An earlier version was presented in January to the Vermont Senate energy committee. The author operates Page Communications, a Berlin-based government affairs and communications company. He is communications director for the Vermont Energy Partnership and advocacy director for the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.