Our Bright Future: The Powerful Challenge of VT’s CEP
We’re lucky. Vermonters have already collectively decided that our long-term fortunes will be better if we embrace and implement a serious shift to renewable energy over the next 35-plus years. The good news is that we have a plan to get there. The 2011 Comprehensive Energy Plan (VT CEP) issued by the state’s Public Service Department outlines where we as a state feel we need to be in terms of energy generation and use by the year 2050. The goal is 90% renewable energy by 2050. We face a steep challenge, because as of 2011, our energy system is only approximately 11% renewable. This means that to get where we’ve said we plan to be in 2050, we need to change every aspect of our energy system to realize that 80% gain.
When we speak about our state’s energy system, it’s important to remember that total energy includes all fuel used for heating and transportation, in addition to generating electricity. Our current energy system is mostly carbon-based, with the primary fossil fuel being oil. It was designed and built on the flawed assumption that cheap fossil fuels could be used forever. This is not the case. About a century and a half into this grand experiment, it turns out that the use of these fuels has serious environmental costs and economic uncertainties attached, and sooner or later they will run out. Fossil and nuclear fuels are costly, finite, and polluting. Another challenge is that on a daily basis, we don’t usually think of our energy system as a unified system at all — our electric bills are separate from the gas we pump to fill our cars, which is separate still from the oil or firewood we use to heat our homes when it’s cold outside. Understanding what we need to do and working on implementing the VT CEP means first promoting energy literacy and a new way of thinking about how we source and use all of our energy.
Change will come, whether we want it to or not. The time to address this is now. A big part of this major shift to 90% renewable energy will be increasing the percentage of our energy system that relies on straight electricity — that is, decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels pumped into our cars and homes. Today, only 16% of Vermont’s delivered energy comes from electrical sources. We must electrify Vermont’s economy — transportation and heating sectors need to be converted to run on electricity. We also must tax the carbon we do use to financially support the transition to non-carbon, non-fossil energy. And rather than always trying to compare apples to oranges, we need to start talking in common electrical energy units of watts. (Bye, bye gallons, BTUs, therms, and cubic feet!)
To paraphrase the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, every long journey starts with a single small step. To begin the change to renewables, we must first set a closer goal. Today, Vermont uses an annual average total of 5000 MW, or about 44,000,000 megawatt-hours. We are at 11% renewables now. A realistic short-term goal will be 20% renewable energy by 2020 — adding to our current total another 10%, or about 500 MW, based on our current annual total energy use. Adding 500 MW of renewable energy in the next seven years will require major increases in efficiency, conservation, and solar and wind energy, as well as rethinking transportation — but this is eminently possible, and will lay the groundwork essential to further implementation of the VT CEP. It just requires thought and effort, and people working together in a commitment toward this common priority.
Our future energy security demands fundamental changes away from out-of-state fossil fuels and purchased energy to in-state renewables. Vermont will be the best place in the country to live and work if we lead by example in how to manage this transition right. We have already set foot upon this path – all it takes is courage and leadership to progress toward our goal.
David Blittersdorf is the President/CEO of AllEarth Renewables in Williston, VT — a company that specializes in the design and manufacture of the grid-connected AllSun Tracker solar energy system. He is also the founder of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT, and is the managing partner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind.