November 18, 2017

Guest Column: State energy plan — costly, symbolic environmentalism

By Jonathan A. Lesser

Vermont, along with 19 other states, has a long-term greenhouse gas reduction mandate. The original mandate, signed into law in 2006, called for a 75 percent reduction below 1990 emissions levels by 2050. In 2011, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin raised the goal to a 90 percent reduction by 2050, something the 2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan discusses in detail.

These numbers don’t add up.

Vermont’s mandate is much more than a requirement to supply consumers with electricity from renewable resources like wind and solar power. It will require virtually complete electrification of the Vermont economy to eliminate almost all fossil fuel consumption. Cars and trucks, oil- and gas-fired furnaces, industrial processes — virtually everything that now uses fossil fuels will need to be replaced with an electric counterpart.

In 1990, Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions were estimated to be 5.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent. By 2012, those emissions had increased to 8.3 million tons. The 90 percent goal means greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by about 5 million tons, to just over 500,000 tons, by 2050. That’s less than the methane emitted by the state’s bovines in 2012.

By comparison, in 2014, total world greenhouse gas emissions were estimated to be around 45 billion tons. To put that in perspective, Vermont’s emissions in all of 2012 were about two hours’ worth of world emissions.

Meeting the 90 percent reduction goal will require replacing virtually all fossil fuel use in the state with electricity, and ensuring that there is enough electricity to do that.

Last November’s election appears to have confirmed that Vermonters don’t want thousands of giant wind turbines dotting the landscape. So, assume that additional electricity will be generated by solar photovoltaics.

According to data published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1 megawatt of solar energy requires 8 acres of land. So, 20,000 megawatts — the amount needed from wind and solar — would require 160,000 acres, or about 250 square miles. And despite cost decreases, solar power is still much more costly than power purchased on the wholesale market. Thus, Vermonters would pay even higher electricity prices.

Solar is not available at night or on cloudy days. Thus, enough solar power will need to be installed to store excess electricity in batteries. Current battery technology can provide 8 megawatt-hours of electricity for every megawatt of capacity, at a cost of about $1.2 million per megawatt. Supplying enough electricity from batteries would require 12,500 megawatts of battery storage, at a cost of $15 billion. Even if battery costs drop by half, that’s still $7.5 billion.

Replacing all of the fossil-fuel-using equipment in the state and adding electric vehicle charging stations would cost billions of dollars more.

Curiously, nowhere does the 2016 comprehensive energy plan discuss the benefits of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps that’s because there will be no benefits. Reducing Vermont’s two-hours’ worth of world CO2 emissions will have no measurable impact on world climate. Nor will similar greenhouse gas reduction mandates in other states. No measurable climate impacts mean zero climate benefits.

Ambitious, math-challenged legislators can always vote to impose costly and foolish mandates like Vermont’s with little pushback from voters. But Vermont’s mandate, like the mandates in other states, will impose additional costs on residents and businesses with zero offsetting benefits. Vermont’s is just another economically damaging exercise in symbolic environmentalism and political grandstanding.

Jonathan Lesser is the former director of planning at the Vermont Department of Public Service. He authored a report titled, “New York’s Clean Energy Programs: The High Cost of Symbolic Environmentalism.”

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