• Carl Etnier: Douglas administration's energy plan is too timid
    August 31,2008

    Energy Matters
    Editor's note: This is the second of a 2-part series on Vermont's draft Comprehensive Energy Plan. Part 1 was published Aug. 17.

    In my previous column, I compared the Department of Public Service's draft energy plan to a Yosemite climbing expedition that ended in disaster in 2000, in part because the climbers were relying on the previous day's weather forecast. I didn't know at the time how accurate the analogy was.

    Gina Campoli, a planner at the Agency of Transportation, says she hadn't noticed substantive changes in the draft plan, which her agency reviewed a year ago, since prices had climbed.

    David Lamont, director of planning at the Department of Public Service, acknowledges that rising energy prices have not driven changes to the draft plan. He doesn't see how rising prices would lead them to change the plan, other than making some policies cost effective that weren't before. But the draft doesn't analyze the cost effectiveness of policies, so even $10 or $20 per gallon gasoline or heating oil wouldn't change the plan.

    In fact, the financial pinch from rising prices has already led the administration and the Joint Fiscal Committee to consider drastic new policies, like helping homeowners sell off equity in their homes to pay for heating them this winter. (The policy would also ensure that fuel dealers were paid instantly for deliveries, rather than having the usual turnaround time of up to 15 days.) The department's plan doesn't anticipate that Vermonters might face the stark choice of losing home equity or freezing.

    There are sober projections that world oil production will be cut in half in 25 years, and that world oil exports may drop to zero in that same time period. Those trends could keep prices rising fast. I'm not comfortable with the idea that the plan won't need to change.

    Ironically, the draft plan itself recognizes that changing circumstances require changing plans. New technologies like plug-in hybrid cars, which rely on grid-based electric power for most of their fuel, mean that electricity and transportation are becoming more interconnected, for example. The department resolves to respond to changing circumstances by updating the plan every three years, instead of the statutory minimum of every five years. (The previous plan was finalized in 1998; this version is six years overdue.)

    The plan's recommendations are generally fine as far as they go: They're just too timid. One is directed at Efficiency Vermont's work to save money for all electric ratepayers by helping commercial, industrial and residential users improve efficiency. The draft plan's recommendation is simply to "evaluate and improve cost-effective efficiency opportunities," as well as the way the program works. Who can object to improving efficiency opportunities?

    How much improvement is appropriate? You'd never know from the plan about the current fight before the Public Service Board about full funding for Efficiency Vermont. The Legislature has authorized the Public Service Board to increase Efficiency Vermont's funding as much as necessary to seize all cost-effective electricity opportunities. Gov. James Douglas' Department of Public Service has recommended less-than-full funding, leaving significant efficiency opportunities on the table. Rather than defending their advocacy for higher-than-necessary electricity costs, the department's draft plan simply wraps the whole issue in the bland language of improving "efficiency opportunities" and hopes it will go away.

    For transportation, the plan has a host of sensible recommendations. It endorses Barack Obama's suggestion that individuals can improve their gas mileage by keeping tires properly inflated and vehicles tuned up properly. It recommends expanding public transit throughout the state and increasing the capacity of park-and-ride facilities. (Lamont points to the Richmond park-and-ride, which he has been using for years, as particularly in need of more capacity. I recently saw Richmond's nearly full on a Saturday night and hoped the cars didn't belong to commuters desperate to find a space for Monday morning.)

    The plan also recommends increasing ridesharing and vanpooling, which the Agency of Transportation is already promoting. (See their new Web site, GoVermont.org.)

    The plan makes a nod toward land-use planning as part of transportation planning, encouraging development in downtowns and village centers, where distances are walkable and population density more easily supports public transit. Here is another area where the Legislature and the Douglas administration have tussled recently. Interestingly, the plan's language is not watered down enough in this case to lend support to Douglas's sprawl-inducing land-use proposal that the Legislature rejected earlier this year.

    While these and other transportation-related recommendations are all good ideas, they remind me of the exasperation of a state employee who told me earlier this summer that he had just received an e-mail from the administration suggesting he carpool. In 2008, he said, the suggestion was too little, too late.

    The nation is not lacking for bold thinking when it comes to energy policies. Al Gore recently proposed that 100 percent of all U.S. electricity come from renewable sources within a decade. James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency," proposes immediately rebuilding the passenger rail network. Yet in Vermont, the Douglas administration dilly-dallies on purchasing new, more fuel-efficient Amtrak rail cars, which could double the number of daily departures on part of their run.

    The current state energy plan, which came out in 1998, provides more guidance for policy than the new draft. Where the new draft catalogs recommendations from the Governor's Commission on Climate Change and other recent policy groups, the current plan provides a framework for understanding the problem and solutions. It says, for example, "One of the greatest advantages of the automobile, the ability to travel great distances quickly, is offset by the large amounts of time required to earn the money to purchase and maintain automobiles and roads. The offsetting effect is so great that if that time were added to the actual travel time, the effective speed of automobile transportation would be slower than that of a bicycle. The point is not that we should all switch to bicycles, but that transportation can and should be made more efficient, more affordable, safer, and cleaner."

    In those three sentences, the current plan captures the absurdity of our current transportation system, the benefits of changing it, and how to measure the benefits. You'd be hard pressed to find anything as clear and prudent in the current plan.

    It's hard to know how important the state energy plan is, as long as the Douglas administration is in office. Douglas came to office in 2003 proposing to slash Efficiency Vermont's budget, and he appointed David O'Brien, who previously had fought the establishment of Efficiency Vermont, as commissioner of the Department of Public Service. As commissioner, O'Brien has continued to support the governor's anti-efficiency and anti-renewables stances.

    Douglas and O'Brien are out of touch with Vermonters when it comes to energy policy, though they try to hide it by misrepresenting what Vermonters think. Earlier this month, for example, O'Brien said, "I don't think Vermonters want their ridgelines looking like that" (with wind turbines on them). Vermonters had told him the opposite in a fresh series of five public hearings and a polling process that O'Brien's own Department ran. In the weekend-long, deliberative poll of a random sample of Vermonters, 90 percent supported wind farms visible from their house; results were similar for the self-selected groups at the public hearings.

    The 1998 state energy plan outlasted the Dean administration, and the plan now in draft form is likely to outlast the Douglas administration, regardless of the outcome of November's election. It's important that the plan, when it is presented in its final form to the Legislature in January, come closer to reflecting the urgency of our energy situation and include more aggressive means for addressing it.

    Without a well-considered plan in place, we may end up facing a series of ad hoc, ill-considered proposals like the one to help Vermonters sell their home equity to pay for this winter's fuel.

    Carl Etnier, director of Peak Oil Awareness, blogs at vtcommons.org/blog and hosts radio shows on WGDR, 91.1 FM Plainfield and WDEV 96.1 FM/550 AM, Waterbury. He can be reached at EnergyMattersVermont(at)yahoo.com.

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