Thursday, December 15, 2011

Can it really be done?

Can Vermont - can Vermonters - get 90 percent of its - of their - energy from the wind, the sun, the rain (and maybe some wood chips) by 2050?

That's only 38 years away, meaning Vermont would have relatively little time to figure out how to replace a lot of oil, natural gas, and uranium and even some coal as the source of its lights, its warm houses, and its getting from here to there.

But that's what the state's ambitious "Comprehensive Energy Plan" calls for.

"We intend to set Vermont on a path to attain 90% of its energy from renewable sources by mid-century," says the plan, officially a draft but slated to be put into final form within days.

In its own words, the Plan is "comprehensive…requiring action in all sectors regarding all energy sources." [Download the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan]

A big job, but, according to the plan, not really optional.

"It is imperative," says the plan, "that we take more control over our energy future."

"Imperative," to be sure, does not necessarily mean "feasible," and the state could "take control" and still fail to meet that 90 percent by mid-century goal. Already, there are critics who argue that the goal is not only unattainable, but not even desirable. They also ask just how much it will cost.

They have a point. The Plan doesn't say how much it will cost. But then, the critics don't say how much it will cost not to move toward less reliance on coal, oil, and gas. Over the next 38 years, burning all that stuff is likely to get a lot more expensive, not to mention dirty. The "challenge of climate change" and the obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions lie behind the Plan's call for switching to non-polluting renewable sources.

A price tag is not the only thing the Plan lacks. Anyone looking for a specific, mathematically precise outline explaining just how the state can reach its 90 percent goal will be disappointed. This is a plan as strategy not as detailed diagram, a general roadmap rather than a precise blueprint.

"The point of a plan is to move in the right direction, to set a goal that appears to be both ambitious and achievable, and to make sure you continue to move in that direction" said Elizabeth Miller, the Commissioner of the Public Service Department, the Plan's creator.

Not that the Plan is nothing more than a warm and fuzzy wish list. Its pages - 19 in the Volume I summary, 368 in the more detailed Volume II - are chock full of graphs, tables, and statistical analysis. The authors used models to try to calculate likely energy use, living patterns, and costs over the next few decades.

But models are created by using assumptions about the future, all plausible but none certain, and many beyond Vermont's control. The section about using less energy for transportation, for instance makes clear that success would depend on federal policy and on how much progress the auto industry makes on developing electric (or part-electric) autos. "We must make significant changes in the types of fuels our vehicles use and in the infrastructure that we rely upon to move around," the Plan says.

On its own, Vermont can't do that.

"That's why we model," Miller said.  "All models are wrong, but some are useful. The point of modeling is to set policy. A model is not a crystal ball."

It can't be, she said, because there will be so many changes in technology, the economy, and human behavior over the next few decades that any effort at precise prediction would be foolish. That, she said, is why the Plan's authors rejected suggestions to set interim "sub-goals," for instance, "to say by 2023 we have to be producing 17 percent of our electricity with biomass, three percent and with wood chips." Conditions will change over time. Does that mean there shouldn't be a goal? No. We need to move in the right direction."

Furthermore, even when the Plan is declared final, it won't really be…final. It's a work in progress. As new technologies are developed, as national policy changes, as new economic models are accepted, the Plan will continue to be re-adjusted.

Some of the criticism is very specific. Fuel oil dealers, who obviously want more homeowners to heat their homes with the product they sell rather than being served by a natural gas pipelines, are unhappy that the Plan suggests expanding a natural gas pipeline. Some business groups fear that the focus on renewables and climate change will mean less emphasis on controlling costs, leading to higher utility bills. They are especially unhappy that the Plan assumes the impending closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which now produces about a third of Vermont's electricity for a low price and without polluting the air.

"Rate-payers would be forced to buy an expensive source of power…(based on) an artificial construct," said Guy Page, the communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership. Referring to the state's insistence that electric utilities buy a certain amount of power from wind projects, even though that electricity is more expensive, Page said, "That's an un-level playing field. Wouldn't it be better to build in renewables on a level playing field?"

In energy, though, there has never been a level playing field. All fuels and systems have been subsidized for more than a century. Nuclear power, which Page and his allies support, is perhaps the most government-subsidized industry in the history of the world. Its original research and development was the Manhattan Project; it still relies on government loan guarantees and a legal cap on its liabilities.

Another specific complaint against the Plan comes from some environmentalists unhappy that the draft version would have ended an eight-year ban on large-scale wind energy projects on state-owned land.

"This land was protected for a reason," said Will Wiquist, the executive director of the Green Mountain Club.  Much of it, he said, is among the state's "most fragile high-elevation lands," and should not be developed.

After Agency of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz said she thought the current policy "works and is consistent with the goals of the energy policy," the plan was "modified," Miller said (by email), to provide that," all renewables continue to be allowed consideration on state land where appropriate."

That would seem to tolerate smaller wind installations, such as the single tower that just went up on state-owned land at Burke Mountain, but not "industrial" wind projects such as the controversial development being built on Lowell Mountain.

The broader criticism of the plan was articulated by University of Vermont economist Art Woolf, who said, "There is no estimate out there of what this thing's going to cost." The Plan, Woolf said, is "looking at the positives and totally ignoring anything that might cause a problem. It only looks at the benefits, not the costs."

For instance, Woolf said, meeting the Plan's goals for using less gasoline would require many more Vermonters to drive cars powered by electricity. Right now, at least, those cars are far more expensive than gasoline-powered autos.

"If I bought $40,000 Chevy Volt (I'd have) $20,000 less to spend than if I bought a standard Chevy," Woolf said. Thousands of Vermonters reducing their disposable income by $20,000 each, he noted, would be a substantial drag on the state's economy.

The Plan hardly avoids the matter of cost, which is mentioned hundreds of times, almost always with the goal of holding it down. But as Miller acknowledged, there is no total net cost estimate of how much money - or whose - it would take to get from here to there.

But it would be close to impossible to provide a detailed cost estimate for the same reason that the Plan does not provide that specific, precise blueprint for achieving its goal: too many variables. For instance, Miller said, "there are…unknown…market forces that will allow vehicle penetration and pricing to change…Those are acknowledged in the plan and rough estimates are provided to allow Vermonters to understand the challenges and benefits."

It may be significant that both Woolf and Miller used automobile transportation examples. Thanks to controversies over Vermont Yankee and the Lowell Mountain wind project, electricity has dominated Vermont's energy debates. But Vermonters us far more energy driving their cars than lighting their homes or running their clothes dryers.

"Transportation accounts for the highest share of overall energy use," reports the Plan, and adds more to greenhouse gas totals than anything else Vermonters do. In Vermont, transportation essentially means individuals driving their cares, usually all alone, and the Plan suggests that the state consider not only cleaner-burning, more fuel-efficient cars, but some more profound (if gradual and cost-effective) alterations in how Vermonters live: more public transportation, more carpooling, walking or biking to work or shop where practical, and - perhaps to make it practical - more people living in "compact centers."

As the Plan says, "the simplest way to reduce emissions from motor vehicles is to use them less."

To some extent, the difference of opinion here is one of attitude as much as analysis. The writers of the Plan appear optimistic that energy technologies will improve fast enough to help them meet their goal. Others are less certain.

"I'm skeptical that anybody knows what energy technologies will be available," Woolf said.

Or course, nobody knows. Up in Canada, Joshua Pearce, adjunct professor of York University's Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, said  solar photovoltaic systems are near the "tipping point" where they can produce energy for about the same price other traditional sources of energy.

But professors have made such projections before, and solar energy remains more expensive than power produced from coal or gas.

Considering Vermont's demographics, at least half the people of the state probably won't be around in 2050 to find out whether Vermont can really succeed in reaching that 90 percent goal.

But there's also the matter of how to define success. If by then Vermont gets 85, or even 75 percent of its energy needs from renewables, will the Plan have been a failure?