Column: Vt. Lawmakers Aren’t Warming to Crucial Work on Energy


There’s good news and bad news on the global warming front. The bad news is that the planet is heating up faster than was previously projected, making clear that if we don’t find a way to stop burning fossil fuels, we could well make the planet uninhabitable. Fossil fuel, which we used to call black gold, has now become black death for human life on our planet.

The good news is that we can end its use. There’s increasing evidence that we already possess the technology and know-how to make the necessary changes.

To make that transition, however, we must not only stop projects such as the Keystone pipeline that threaten to provide access to large amounts of dirty energy, but also eliminate obstacles that hinder the implementation of renewable energy technologies we have at our disposal. Our biggest obstacle might be our failure to recognize the magnitude of the climate change crisis and the overriding need to take action.

A dismaying lack of urgency was on display recently in the Vermont Senate in the debate about SB 30, which would have effectively stopped development of renewable energy projects by requiring proposals for new developments to go through Act 250 review, where those proposals could easily by derailed by small groups. Act 250 was not designed for large energy projects that serve statewide needs. A proper review of those projects must strike the right balance between narrow and broader environmental concerns, which requires looking not just at the local impact, but also taking into consideration the state’s overall energy system and the need to fight global warming by reducing carbon emissions.

The bill that emerged from the Senate and was sent over to the House was stripped of its most damaging provisions, but that’s hardly cause for celebration. Our legislators should be spending their time figuring out how to expedite renewable energy development, not fending off attempts to stop it.

This is particularly important as we make the transition to electric vehicles and a carbon-free energy system. We’re going to need a substantial amount of energy from all renewable energy sectors.

Consider that Vermont used about 6.1 million megawatt hours of electric energy in 2009. My very rough calculations indicate that we’ll need about 15.4 million MWh by 2050 if we are to supply the transportation, agriculture and other sectors of the Vermont economy with carbon-free energy. That’s about two and a half times our current electrical needs. And if we produce that energy using today’s technology, that will require hundreds of wind turbines on our ridgelines, where the wind is most reliable, and considerable amounts of open land devoted to solar arrays. We’ll also need to make considerable improvements in efficiency and energy storage capacity. But the point is that we have considerable work ahead.

The other important point is that this is not a token effort. While converting to a carbon-free energy system may be one of the most difficult challenges Vermont has faced, it is achievable. The technologies we have developed in the last century position us well. General Electric has said that wind turbine efficiency has increased 60 to 80 percent just from 2002 to the present. And an independent study mapping out an alternative energy future for the state of New York was released just last month. Undertaken by Cornell University scientist Robert Howarth with Stanford University researchers, the study found that it is technically and economically feasible to convert New York’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one powered entirely by wind, water and sunlight. The same must hold true for Vermont.

And if we don’t? At his March 16 all-day conference in Montpelier on global warming’s impact on Vermont, Sen. Bernie Sanders warned that scientists are now predicting about an 8-degree Fahrenheit temperature increase by 2100. That large of a temperature increase would make Vermont’s climate similar to Georgia’s, with devastating impacts to our state. Although Vermont produces a relatively small amount of greenhouse gas compared with U.S. totals, it is not a valid reason to deny responsibility for what we do produce. In Vermont, a carbon-free energy system would provide efficient, cost-effective energy for all its energy needs, while providing an energy independence that would reward us financially and environmentally.

All of which suggests why the recent debate in the Vermont Senate was so dispiriting. Considering the magnitude of the problem and the amount of work ahead, it is hard to believe that our legislators would seriously consider any measure that might slow down, let alone bring to a halt, the energy conversion that must take place.

What we need more of is the sort of soul-searching commitment expressed by Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, who acknowledged his discomfort about the impact of renewable energy development on the Vermont landscape, but said his concern about global warming forced him to overcome that.

“Push has come to shove,” he told his fellow senators. “Are you serious about global warming or are you not?”

That’s a question all Vermont residents should be posing to their legislators. We have too much work to do.

Charles McKenna, a Wilder resident, is a retired engineer and executive committee member of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club.