Fresh Air Ahead: Transition to Clean Energy Supplies

Sandy Levine | @CLFLevine

It is welcome news that the New England Governors are stepping away from a high-risk gamble with clean air and electric customers’ money. Shrouded in secrecy, the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) undertook efforts that were poised to tax electric customers – including customers in Vermont – to pay for bringing massive new gas pipelines into the region.

These pipelines would lock in polluting fossil fuel supplies for decades. The NESCOE efforts are now on indefinite hold. That’s good. The shoddy analysis supporting the plans collapsed after being exposed to the welcome sunlight of public scrutiny.

But as the region closes older and dirtier generating facilities – such as coal plants in southern New England, and Vermont Yankee here in Vermont – and as we move transportation and home heating away from gasoline and oil, we need to make sure we transition to cleaner supplies.

We still have homes to heat, lights to keep on and businesses to run. As a region, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gases. Our efforts are a model for the rest of the country. Climate change demands that we reduce emissions at least 75% below 1990 levels by 2050. To meet this challenge, Vermont has set a goal of meeting 90% of all its power needs with renewable sources by 2050. If and how natural gas fits into this equation is one of the biggest energy challenges of the next decade.

Once touted as a panacea and a “bridge fuel,” the exuberance for natural gas is tarnishing. Pollution from gas leaks during transmission and extraction threaten to eliminate any of the possible climate benefits from natural gas burning cleaner than oil. But reliance on natural gas, at least in the short term, is not likely to go away. Most of southern New England relies on gas for heating. During the very cold days last winter, high demand for gas drove up short-term prices to record levels. These price spikes have fed a frenzy of cries for new pipelines.

The real challenge lies in reducing our overall reliance on gas. It is not an option to use as much gas decades from now as we use today.

The actions we take now in terms of gas pipelines or new gas supplies need to foster the transition to the next generation of cleaner supplies. Our clean energy transformation will not occur if all our energy dollars continue to prop up old technology and fossil fuels.

The model Vermont created with energy efficiency holds promise for our next clean energy transformation – transitioning away from fossil fuels. For pennies a day our investments in energy efficiency have saved money, reduced pollution and allowed us to avoid building expensive new electric power plants.

As we look at gas supply we can see that making wise use of our existing pipelines is a good place to start. We can make sure the pipeline capacity we already have is being well utilized before leaping to build expensive new pipelines as NESCOE contemplated. This starts with fixing leaks and creating opportunities for storage or contracts to address the few hours of a few days of high demand in the winter.

If new pipeline capacity is added, its lifespan should be limited. To move away from fossil fuels by 2050, any permit for a new or expanded pipeline should expire in 2050. We must recognize the useful life of a new pipeline and not allow it to saddle customers with costs and pollution for decades to come.

Any pipeline capacity increase should include a “system transformation charge.” Similar to the energy efficiency charge, this would recapture a portion of the expected economic savings and use those funds to enable more energy efficiency and renewable power supplies. These funds would allow customers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels each year, making the possibility of using natural gas as a “bridge fuel” a reality.

A clean energy transformation is in reach. Vermont and New England can lead the way leaving cleaner air and a healthier planet for ourselves and for generations to come.

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