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November 29, 2009

We Need to Use More Electricity

What percentage of your home energy comes from electricity? Take a guess.

If you're like me, you way over-estimated. A typical Vermont household gets about 16% of its energy from electricity, 53% from home heating oil, and 31% from gasoline. The estimate is based on annual use of 12,000 kWh of electricity, 1000 gallons of home heating oil, and 15,000 miles of driving at 25 mpg. In order to compare, I changed all the energy sources to BTUs (conversion factors here if you want to check me). Overall, only 18% of the energy used in the state including commercial use is from electricity, almost all the rest from fossil fuels (not counting our wood stoves).

So why so much concentration on saving electricity?

In some states much of the electricity used comes from coal. You might be worried about CO2 emissions from coal burning. But in Vermont approximately a third of our electricity comes from HydroQuebec, another third from Vermont Yankee, and only the final third (peak load) releases any CO2, most of that from relatively clean natural gas. If you keep track of your carbon footprint, under the above assumptions only 8% of the 42,663 lbs of CO2 your household is generating annually comes from your use of electricity, 61% comes from heating, and 31% from driving.

The major source of CO2 in the state is home heating. And that's a problem. 73% of the households in Vermont heat with either oil or propane (an oil-based product) compared to a national average of only 15.5%. In the rest of the country 30.3% of houses are heated with electricity and 51.2% are heated with relatively clean (and cheaper and more secure) natural gas.

We can't all switch to natural gas for home heating or our cars because there is only one natural gas line in the state and it covers only some of the northwest corner of the state. Parts of an intelligent energy strategy for Vermont on both environmental and economic grounds are to increase the use of natural gas where it is available and to extend the pipeline so it is available in more places.

We do have electricity everywhere. The smart grid that we'll be building with $69 million of federal stimulus dollars and $69 million of utility dollars will help assure that we can use clean off-peak electricity for electric cars and home heating. Electric home heat in Vermont has long been politically taboo (only 5% of us do it); but it now deserves a resurgence. Electric geothermal heat is very efficient and makes good economic sense even at today's electric rates in most places in Vermont but requires a well and a relatively high initial outlay of at least $20,000. Electric storage heat using offpeak electricity is environmentally sound and only requires about $3000 of capital cost in most cases; but it is only cheaper than oil heat where there are deep reductions for offpeak use. We'll see more of these in the future as the smart grid lets utility customers pick and implement rate plans that make sense for both the customers and the utility.

The initial cost for electric cars makes them economically unattractive despite the fact that they're good for the environment and cheaper to fuel even at today's electricity and gas prices than conventional cars. The price of electrics'll come down. The smart grid'll help cars sip electrons when they're very cheap. And we'll reduce our carbon footprint for transportation.

Much of the road to a future with lower total energy costs and less CO2 emission is MORE use of electricity. That's why it's important to make sure we have more electricity to use at a reasonable price.

Some of that extra supply'll come from new renewable sources; the smart grid helps integrate wind, solar, hydro, and biomass more efficiently.

Some of that extra supply'll probably come from expanded contracts for Canadian power. HydroQuebec is building new capacity.

However, we will have less supply, burn more fossil fuel, and pay much higher prices if Vermont Yankee is not relicensed. We need the new capacity from renewables and HydroQuebec to EXPAND the use of electricity, not to fill the huge supply hole that closing Yankee would leave.

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