(Note: This is my letter to the editor that was printed in the Addison Independent this week, though they changed the title from my original above. Several of you have asked for an electronic copy or link, so here it is.)
For the last few years I have been carefully following the debate about Vermont’s solar and wind development. There have been many valid points brought up by both advocates and opponents, and there seems to be a consensus opinion forming that revolves around a middle ground of sorts. Most Vermonters do agree that we need to transition toward a renewable-energy economy, but also that common-sense guidelines should be developed with regard to the approval and siting of wind turbines, solar arrays, and their distribution networks. I do sometimes wonder, however, if the body politic is occasionally losing sight of the forest for the trees, especially when I see the tiniest of details about specific projects being debated in various public forums.
In light of this, let me attempt to bring us all back a step. In the last several centuries, we humans have benefited tremendously from the use of fossil fuels; the power they contain has underpinned most of the world’s development and wealth creation. This energy source has also enabled human populations to mushroom, and, despite a gradual slowdown, world population is still increasing by about a million people every four days. The pressures that 7 billion-plus humans are putting on the planet are beginning to break it, as oceans acidify, the planet warms, wildlife habitats shrink, soil washes away, species vanish, pollution accumulates, and sea levels rise. Though the problems are many and disparate, a good portion of them are related to the use of fossil fuels, because using them has in some ways been a bargain with the devil. Despite the benefits that these fuels have given to mankind, we now better understand that they have dangers as well, and realize that burning them is not without cost, particularly with regard to CO2 emissions. Despite efficiency improvements across the board, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are still climbing steadily, and have now passed 400-parts-per-million—higher than any time in the last four million years. Worse, these higher levels hold a hidden danger, as atmospheric CO2 is quite stable, and continues to cause warming for centuries. This warming of the planet is also likely to exacerbate all of the other problems that we humans are causing, and many of them could become mutually reinforcing, or even spiral out of control in future decades. Mankind has unknowingly, and then knowingly, been playing a very dangerous game.
Fortunately, thanks in many cases to government supports that have fostered development and brought down costs, alternatives to fossil fuel now exist. Solar and wind power, in particular, are now viable ways to generate electricity. Efficient, reliable electric vehicles are readily available, cold-climate heat pumps offer sizable cost-savings when compared to fuel oil, and buildings can be built or retrofitted to be far more efficient than in the past, in addition to many other advancements.
This is important, because both the dangers that we face, and the scale of the changes that will be required to deal with it, are beyond what most people are currently envisioning. As we phase out fossil fuels in the coming decades, demand for electricity is expected to double, even as efficiencies cause overall energy use to decline. We will eventually need, and must move rapidly toward, a situation where every house and business in the country has solar on the roof or in the yard, or is net-metered to a community array. We need wind turbines on the ridges here in Vermont, and in the coastal waters of Massachusetts and other states along the seaboard, and throughout the windy Midwest. We need hydro-electric generation, and pumped-hydro storage, and thermal-solar plants in the deserts, and we need high-voltage DC transmission lines, combined with smart grids, to efficiently move this power long distances.
Then, we will need to match this renewable power generation with efficiency improvements where energy is consumed. Buildings of all shapes and sizes must be fully weatherized, electric vehicles need to replace those powered with fossil fuel, and high-efficiency lighting, appliances, and space and water-heating must be installed.
For renewable generation like solar and wind to work in this way, our vision must also include changes to our perceptions of the role that electric power companies fill. Today’s business model, where cheap, unlimited electrical power is available around-the-clock, will become untenable, and we will see power companies function more as brokers between consumers and thousands of producers. Because renewable power generation is sometimes intermittent, pricing structures will have to be changed to allow market forces to change people’s behavior with regard to energy usage. With time-of-use pricing, future electricity will be cheaper when the sun is out and the wind is blowing. During these times people will charge their vehicles, or heat and cool their homes, and heat water. During hours of lower production, prices will rise, and will discourage electricity use during those times. The differences between high and low electricity prices will allow developers to arbitrage the system, and will make storage systems such as pumped-hydro, grid-scale batteries, or molten-salt storage profitable. This arbitrage will have the added benefit of altering supply and demand in such a way as to limit the spread between high prices and low ones. For seasonal variations, large-scale hydro-electric dams can store water or generate power, as required.
Some seem to discount the possibility of switching entirely to renewable generation, but in their critiques I nearly always see a lack of vision with regard to two areas mentioned above, namely, they underestimate how much more efficient we can be in our energy use, and they fail to factor in how use patterns will change. Much is now possible—we power our house here in New Haven entirely with solar, AND use it to charge two fully-electric vehicles.
On the whole, there is no denying that the transitions ahead will be huge and difficult, and will take decades to fully implement. There will be costs, and some of these costs will be felt in Vermont. Trees will need to be cut to make way for improved power lines, wind turbines will need road access, some fields will need to contain solar arrays, and some dams will have to be built. But, the positives from these changes will far outweigh the negatives. Making these changes will be an investment, in many ways. Many benefits will accrue—an end to dependence on foreign oil, an end to trillions of dollars flowing overseas to some of the most volatile places in the world, resilient distributed networks, improved air quality, an end to mountaintop-removal coal mining, and massive reductions in CO2 emissions. If we are also able to stop worldwide deforestation, and to sufficiently alter agricultural methods to increase carbon-uptake in soils, then we might be able someday to actually reverse the rise in CO2 levels.
Some of my fellow Vermonters will surely read this and balk at the scope of what I have written here. It is too much change, they will think. They will wonder why we can’t just leave it all untouched, the farms and fields and uninterrupted ridge-lines. But we must realize that the current lifestyles of Vermonters, and the farming vistas, are aspects of a way of life put into place and enabled by a carbon-based economy, and that these views are only one side of a coin—the other side being of immense and steadily accruing environmental damage, much of it in far-away places. Someday some form of energy generation may be invented that will allow us to dismantle all of the solar arrays and take down the wind turbines. Until then, however, we don’t have many options, and we are out of time. Waiting and keeping our fingers crossed are not valid strategies.
So, it is imperative that we change, and move toward being restorative, instead of destructive. All of us, everywhere. And here in Vermont, we too must play a part in all of this. We too will have solar arrays and wind turbines and new transmission lines. We too must remain politically active, and push for carbon-taxes and fairer trade policies, and for more equitable systems. We too must vote with our dollars when we make purchases, and we too must make commitments to lower our individual carbon footprints. But most importantly, we must envision a better world. And when our neighbors choose to help lead the way by making their own changes, we must be careful to not stand in their way.