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March 01, 2018

Renewables Are a Means, Not an End

Especially if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gasses.

An organization called 350VT has caused an advisory item to be placed on the town meeting agenda for my town of Stowe and many other towns around the state whose first plank is to “Halt any new or expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, including but not limited to pipelines”. It also calls on the state to “Firmly commit to at least 90% renewable energy for all people in Vermont.” Interestingly the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not mentioned anywhere in the resolution.

 If these resolutions are adopted by towns and if the state government heeds them, the result will be an INCREASE, not a DECREASE in GHG emissions. On environmental grounds, the resolutions should be amended or defeated.

The United States has reduced GHG emissions more than any other developed country largely because it has replaced coal and oil with natural gas in electrical generation and as an industrial boiler fuel. Burning natural gas emits 50% less CO2 than burning coal and 26% less CO2 than burning oil or propane for each BTU or kilowatt-hour produced. We have increased our use of renewables significantly also; when not over-priced, this is a good thing. But the major reduction is because we have cheap natural gas available and we’ve used it.

According to the Federal Energy Information Agency, in 2014 Vermont had the lowest output of CO2 in the country per electrical Megawatt hour (Mwh) generated: 19lbs/Mwh; the national average is 1123lbs/Mwh. However, at that time, 72 per cent of our electricity was generated at a nuclear power plant which has now shut down. 4.4% of our production was from wind and .2% from solar.

Now we generate less than 35% of the 5.5 million Megawatt-hours we use annually. The rest is carbon-free power from Hydro Quebec and “traditional” power from the New England Grid.  As a whole, New England in 2014 emitted 571lbs/Mwh of generation. Net net we are responsible for a lot more CO2 emissions than we were when Vermont Yankee was still producing. Nuclear power is a perfect example of a “non-renewable” highly effective way to reduce GHG emissions. But we won’t be building any new nukes in Vermont soon.

Vermont is reducing its emissions thanks to the Vermont Gas pipeline extension to Middlebury. Almost every new customer of that pipeline is substituting cleaner natural gas for oil or propane. One of the biggest customers of that pipeline is Middlebury College, which likes to boast that it is carbon-neutral. There’s some irony here: 350VT is the Vermont affiliate of 350.org, an organization co-founded by Middlebury professor Bill McKibben. The classrooms Bill teaches in are heated by natural gas from just the kind of pipeline extension 350.org and 350VT are against. Natural gas allowed Middlebury to stop burning very dirty #6 oil and was an essential part of its achieving carbon-neutrality. If pipeline opponents had had their way, Middlebury would still be burning oil. Hmmm.

350VT advocates encouraging electric cars. This is not a bad idea but they are ignoring the inconvenient fact that incremental electricity in New England is produced mainly by burning natural gas, especially with New England nukes shutting down. Although there are huge supplies of inexpensive natural gas just west of us in central Pennsylvania, there is not enough pipeline capacity from there to meet the winter demand by New England electrical generators. This winter old oil and coal plants had to come back online and a tanker full of Siberian liquified natural gas (LNG) discharged in Everett Harbor. Why hasn’t pipeline capacity increased, you ask? Because organization including 350.org have successfully opposed proposed new pipelines even though the price of not having them is more GHG emission (and higher costs for consumers).

Making renewables a goal instead of a means is environmentally irresponsible; it is making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Opponents of natural gas use point out that its main component, methane, is itself a much more potent GHG than CO2. This would be relevant if methane were released instead of burned; it would be relevant if a large amount of methane were released in extraction or transportation; but they aren’t. It would be relevant if atmospheric concentrations of methane were increasing as CO2 concentrations certainly are; however, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate change, atmospheric methane is stable to declining despite more drilling than ever and despite a world which consumes more beef than ever (bovine flatulence and manure are major methane sources).

I intend to offer an amendment to the 350VT advisory resolution at Stowe town meeting. It will replace the call for an arbitrary percentage of renewable energy and the ban on “new fossil fuel infrastructure” with a call for the state to:

  1. Target a specific goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont by 2030 using the most effective means available;
  2. Consider all alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including but not limited to renewables, conservation, increased access to hydropower, and substitution of natural gas for coal, oil, and propane;

We are trying to reduce the probability of rapid human-caused climate change, not create a business case for any particular energy technology. Renewables are one of the means toward that end.

The Stowe version of the 350VT resolution is here; the proposed substitute resolution is here. I’m quite happy to amend it before town meeting in response to comments on this blog or comments on Facebook.

[full disclosure: I am the founder and chairman of NG Advantage, a Vermont company which delivers compressed natural gas (CNG) by truck to large users who don’t have access to a pipeline. Last year our customers reduced CO2 emissions by about 160,000,000 lbs., about the same reduction as can be attributed to all the commercial wind turbines in Vermont. We delivered gas to be used by Middlebury College before the pipeline got down there; but I support the pipeline although it cost us the Middlebury business.]


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