Vermont should learn from Google on energy policy

By Rob Roper

The Vermont Legislature has long been bent on saving the planet through government micromanagement of energy policy. The big issue this year appears to be passing a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that would require utilities to sell a set percentage of renewable power (and thereby forcing customers to buy the more expensive product).  The other issue, likely debated but not moved on this year, is a carbon tax designed to make fossil fuel use artificially expensive.

According to a recent report by Ross Koningstein and David Fork, engineers at Google who worked on the company’s groundbreaking renewable energy project RE<C, this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

In 2007, Google launched RE<C to “tackle the world’s climate and energy problems.” The goal was to figure out how improve renewable technologies to the point that they could deliver renewable energy more cheaply than a coal fired power plant could. In 2011, Google pulled the plug on the project. The science just didn’t work.

As Koningstein and Fork concluded, “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”

The engineers concluded that even if we were somehow able to shut down every fossil-fueled power plant immediately, it still wouldn’t stop the planet from warming. “We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise.”

A totally new technology will be necessary. What is it? Koningstein and Fork don’t know, but they do offer some ideas for what characteristics it must embody and principles upon which it must be developed. Topping the list: profit motive.

Profit has wrongly become a dirty word for many in Vermont, but it is the only efficient fuel, if you will, that can ultimately effectively propel technology forward far enough to achieve the environmental goal of cheap, abundant, reliable, renewable energy.

After spending half a decade studying this issue as part of a well-funded project by one of the most tech-savvy, environmentally conscious companies in the world today, Koningstein and Fork concluded that businesses won’t make sacrifices and pay more for clean energy based on altruism alone. Instead, we need solutions that appeal to their profit motives.

Across the board, we need solutions that don’t require subsidies or government regulations that penalize fossil fuel usage. Of course, anything that makes fossil fuels more expensive, whether it’s pollution limits or an outright tax on carbon emissions, helps competing energy technologies locally. But industry can simply move manufacturing (and emissions) somewhere else. So rather than depend on politicians’ high ideals to drive change, it’s a safer bet to rely on businesses’ self interest. In other words, the bottom line.

Let’s apply these realities to Vermont. If shutting down all the fossil fuel power plants in the world today won’t solve the warming problem, Vermont’s goal of reaching 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 in our little state alone is really a worthless endeavor. Worse than worthless. It’s potentially damaging to our economy as well as our natural environment while providing nothing in return.

Meredith Angwin of Vermont’s Energy Education project calculated that in order to generate 90 percent of Vermont’s energy requirements from local, renewable sources, which is the goal, it would require developing as much as 700 miles of ridge-line all on the scale of the Lowell wind project. Vermont is only 154 miles long, and only a fraction of those miles are suitable for wind turbines.

Alternatively, we would have to cover an area one quarter the size of the Green Mountain National Forest with solar panels to achieve the same result. Driving through much of the state today and passing acres of unsightly panels where Woody Jackson’s cows used to graze it seems like we’re already approaching that mass, but, despite the perception, we’re not even close.

This kind of industrial development, essentially turning thousands of acres of our pristine landscape, pastures, ridge-lines and wildlife habitats into power generation factories, will have a devastating environmental and aesthetic impact on Vermont. The artificially high costs of energy will drive away businesses and jobs. The damage to the landscape will repel tourists. And, even in the best-case scenario, this policy will do nothing to solve the issue of global warming.

So, rather than plow forward with expensive and invasive policies we know won’t work, perhaps Montpelier might take a page from Google’s book: Pull the plug for now, at least until a real solution has been identified. Our pristine landscape and the children who inherit it will thank you.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org). He lives in Stowe.