Comprehensive Approach is Required for a Bright Energy Future

Comprehensive Approach is Required for a Bright Energy Future

The world faces significant challenges regarding how a growing, global society will meet its energy needs, and Vermont is no exception.

Here in the Green Mountain state we face some very difficult energy choices. Gas prices continue to climb. Fuel oil prices remain high and are unlikely to fall far, if at all. The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant — currently one-third of the state’s electric supply — will likely go offline in 2012, as scheduled. And attractive, affordable and viable energy solutions are not readily available or easily developed.

To guide the state in making these complex and strategic choices, the Department of Public Service recently commenced a much-needed update to Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, last formally enacted in 1998.

Without a current, comprehensive and coordinated approach to meeting our energy needs, the challenges before us will be even greater. And without the active participation of Vermonters in identifying and implementing solutions, it will be nearly an impossible task.

Both state leaders and Vermonters seem to recognize these realities. A series of initial public hearings on the plan was recently held, two hosted by the DPS and one by the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. The meetings drew roomfuls of engaged and committed people who offered ideas and strategies for meeting our energy needs.

The DPS is also coordinating with other state agencies that have important roles to play in shaping a comprehensive plan, including the agencies of natural resources, transportation, commerce and community development and agriculture, among others.

But the plan — and the DPS — cannot succeed without coordinating with these agencies and without a broad-based public engagement process. That’s because the energy challenges facing Vermont are wide-ranging. And the issues are not primarily electrical, despite the overwhelming media and public attention focused on debates over wind, biomass and hydropower. The basic issues  include:

•    Transportation. How do we transport people and local products, such as Vermont grown food and forest products, in this rural state while minimizing energy consumption? How do we move more Vermonters while significantly curbing our use of the single occupancy vehicle?

  •  Land Use. How can we build compact, walkable communities where people can easily live, work and play in one location? How can we protect valuable farm and forestland to cultivate local foods and fuel and ensure long-term health and viability of our working landscapes for jobs, recreation, habitat and more?
  • Conservation.  How can we take full advantage of energy conservation – the largest potential power source that does not cost ratepayers or taxpayers a single penny? How can we make smart, strategic and simple adjustments in the way we live in the world in order to use far less energy than we use today?
  • Efficiency. How do we make the most efficient use out of the electric and thermal energy we are producing so that we need far less of it?

These are just some of the questions that Vermont must attempt to answer as part of this comprehensive planning process.

For example, the transportation sector is the state’s largest user of energy. Finding ways to move more people by bus, bike, train or foot is an essential component of any real, comprehensive energy solution in Vermont. That’s why, in this planning process, it’s imperative that leaders representing businesses, low-income and environmental interests are at the table, working together to craft solutions.

Thankfully, they are. At the second DPS-hosted stakeholder meeting on the comprehensive plan on April 7, Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter outlined Vermont’s transportation reality and remarked that solutions will require some “heavy lifting.”

To address one of the several transportation issues Minter outlined — vehicle miles traveled — Vermonters travel modes will have to change. Currently, 94 percent of Vermonters drive to work in a personal vehicle — many of them alone. One percent each bike and bus to work while three percent walk. Solutions that make the shift away from the single occupancy vehicle attractive, affordable and convenient are required.

Innovation and intention regarding land use are also imperative. At the April 7 meeting Agency of Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross identified several areas where Vermont’s forests and farms could be an important part of the energy solution. Ross suggested using biodigesters on farms for providing base load power while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as cellulosic ethanol when it becomes economically feasible. He also stressed the importance of grass-to-energy operations

“Grass is one of the best solar collectors ever made,” Ross said and also noted that “the best land conservation practice known to man in Vermont is good agriculture and forestry business.”

Vermont’s energy challenges represent a very significant opportunity, if they are addressed carefully and openly. The process begins by putting all ideas on the table and bringing Vermonters from all walks of life together to develop solutions.

This process has historically resulted in innovative solutions. Vermont’s previous energy plans helped put into action the policies and programs that established Vermont as a national leader in energy efficiency through the creation of the nation’s first energy efficiency utility — Efficiency Vermont.

While we clearly face enormous challenges for our economic, environmental and energy future, we also have a tremendous opportunity — if we recognize and address it properly. What we need now is a road map to realize the best scenario for Vermont’s future in the most strategic, efficient and comprehensive way possible.

The Department of Public Service will be hosting more public meetings over the summer. In the meantime, visit the DPS web site for more information on the Comprehensive Energy Plan, the process and to make suggestions on considerations or solutions the plan should embrace.