A healthy sign of maturity is making decisions that recognize longer term benefits and impacts. This holds particularly true for our energy decisions.
In a field as rapidly transforming as our energy sector, it is important to avoid making long term decisions that burden future generations with higher costs and pollution.
The steady march of proposals to build expensive new natural gas pipelines is one example. These are pipelines that will be in place for fifty to one hundred years – long past the time that climate change demands we move away from fossil fuels.
Customers will be paying for these new pipelines for at least fifty years. That is a long time. Kicking the can down the road and burdening future generations masks the real costs of these new pipelines.
Most Vermonters wouldn’t attempt to buy a car now with a 50 year loan. Sure the cost each month may be low, but even frugal Vermonters don’t expect to be driving the same car in 50 years, or saddling their kids with paying for it, and its inefficient fuel use half a century from now.
When the ballooning cost of the Vermont Gas pipeline to Middlebury soared by 40% the project proponents simply pushed the cost of the project on to future generations and then claimed the long payback justified the exorbitant cost increase.
Long term energy investments like a new gas pipeline need to make sense in the face of changing technology. If we simply ignore or gloss over the rapid improvements that new technology brings, we will be left investing in the equivalent of rotary telephones or typewriters when society has moved well beyond them.
Technology innovation and climate change demand that we take a much harder look at expanding our reliance on the use of fossil fuels. Lighting efficiency has improved ten-fold in the past few years thanks to LEDs. At the same time, cold climate heat pumps are rapidly becoming a cleaner and lower cost option for heating and cooling our homes and businesses. The cost of solar power has come down 90% in the past two decades and more homes, businesses and communities are taking advantage of this renewable option.
How does natural gas stack up to these newer, cleaner resources over the long haul? Not very well. That is why it is so disappointing to see Vermont Gas continue to claim that their projects provide benefits when their analysis is only short-term and based on a comparison to oil or propane. In 1974 an electric typewriter looked pretty good. By 1984 it was beginning to gather dust and was out of use entirely less than ten years later.
Addressing climate change demands a similar longer term and more realistic evaluation. If natural gas is expected to be a bridge fuel we rely on for only a few decades, then Vermont customers should not be asked to subsidize a new pipeline for more than 50 years. If a new pipeline is capable of delivering gas that could support a new gas-fired electric generating facility or increased gas use throughout Vermont and New York , then it fails to meet our long-term greenhouse gas reduction needs. And if the supply of gas comes from sources that use hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which produces more air and water pollution, then Vermonters use of gas is not helping the environment, it only exports environmental problems to other communities.
Vermonters deserve energy supplies that are clean, low cost and effective for generations. The rapid transformation of our energy sector means we have the opportunity now to move away from expensive and polluting fossil fuels more quickly than ever– but only if we make decisions based on realistic evaluations that recognize impacts over the long term.
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday October 26, 2014 edition of the Rutland Herald / Times Argus