Column: Upper Valley Can Get Much Greener by 2050

  • Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign photographed in Hanover, New Hampshire on Wednesday, August 17, 2016. Copyright 2016 Rob Strong

For the Valley News
Thursday, September 01, 2016

On Aug. 17, more that 120 people from 23 communities gathered on the Dartmouth Green to form an image of “100%” inside the rays of the sun to kick off participation in the national Ready for 100 campaign. The Sierra Club Upper Valley Group — in collaboration with Sustainable Hanover, Vital Communities and others — will be working with Upper Valley towns to commit to 100 percent clean and renewable energy in the electrical, transportation and heating/cooling sectors by the year 2050 and in the electrical sector by 2030.

Over the coming months, we will be garnering support by talking to community leaders, businesses, religious groups and others about the feasibility of and critical need to move toward this energy model.

What does 100 percent clean and renewable energy mean? Clean and renewable energy means carbon-free and pollution-free energy harvested from wind, solar, hydro, tidal and geothermal sources as well as energy efficiency. It does not include natural gas, nuclear or any carbon-based energy source.

Is a 100 percent clean and renewable energy goal feasible? First and foremost, there remains significant opportunity to save energy through increased efficiency. In addition, the cost of generating renewable energy has been falling; in recent years, solar prices have dropped 80 percent and wind, 60 percent.

A persistent argument against moving toward a 100 percent sustainable future is that solar and wind energy are intermittent, i.e., when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, power is not available. A series of papers by Mark Jacobson and others at Stanford University have modeled how such a renewable system could work. Beginning with a combination of wind, water and solar technologies, they added energy storage (e.g., storing heat in soil, storing cold in ice, using excess electrical energy to pump water into high-elevation ponds to be tapped for later hydroelectric generation). Modeling such a system for the years 2050-2055, they were able to match anticipated energy-grid demands with no load loss.

What are the advantages of a fully-renewable energy future? Unlike energy from fossil fuels, energy from wind, water and solar is insulated from price fluctuations caused by shortages or oversupply. In addition, moving toward a renewable energy future will create jobs. The solar industry already employs more than 200,000 people; in 2015, job growth in the solar industry was 12 times greater than in the general economy. Finally, clean energy cuts pollution and saves lives. Air and water pollution emitted by coal and natural gas plants is linked to asthma, neurological damage, heart attacks and cancer.

What are the implications for the Upper Valley? In 2015, New Hampshire sourced 47 percent of its electricity from the Seabrook nuclear plant, 30 percent from gas-powered power plants and 17 percent from renewable energy. While nuclear power generation is carbon-free, the energy embodied in creating the fuel is not. Compared to oil and coal, natural gas has been touted as a clean “bridge” fuel, but leakage of gas from wellhead to user significantly adds to its carbon footprint.

The energy mix would be very different in 2050. The Solutions Project (thesolutionsproject.org), uses Jacobsen’s research to provide road maps to sustainability for all 50 states. In New Hampshire, they envision electricity from a mixture of onshore wind (20 percent), offshore wind (40 percent), solar farms (24 percent) and hydroelectric (6 percent), with most of the remainder coming from rooftop solar on residential and commercial structures. They estimate that building this system would result in over 10,000 construction and 5,600 operation jobs over 40 years. For Vermont, the 2050 mix is different with the majority of electricity coming from hydroelectric (64 percent) and onshore wind (25 percent). For both states, energy efficiency is a key factor, with a projected 43 percent decrease in demand.

A fully sustainable energy system by 2050 is an ambitious commitment, and there remain important questions about how parts of the energy mix will make the transition. But the costs of inaction are even greater. Global temperatures are on track to set another record in 2016; under a business as usual approach, we can expect to see more records set year after year. We believe the biggest impediment to a fully-sustainable future is political will.

The National Sierra Club has announced that 16 cities, including major cities like San Diego, have already made commitments to 100 percent clean energy. A handful — such as Burlington — are already powered with entirely renewable sources. Our local coalition is working to have the Upper Valley be part of this movement.

Michael Hillinger is chair of the Executive Committee, Sierra Club, Upper Valley Group.