Editorial: Inconvenient truth in the shift to renewable energy

The one-sided argument on fossil fuel consumption goes like this: All things related to fossil fuels worsen global warming, the crisis of our times, and must be banned or reduced. No exceptions. From an environmental perspective, it’s a compelling argument that is difficult to refute.
But the argument leaves little room for incremental change, or discussion of economic realities. It’s too often an all-or-nothing approach based on the politics of our moral responsibility. Today’s reality is that only about 11 percent of the world’s energy consumption is from renewable energy sources (biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind) with a projection of just 15 percent by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Fossil fuels and nuclear energy make up the remainder. While the U.S. numbers are slightly higher for renewable production, it’s not by much, and we know it will take decades to move the nation and the world off fossil fuels in significant volumes and onto renewables.
That is also an inconvenient truth.
When wrestling with that truth, the realities of supply and demand clash with the moral imperative to do the right thing. The consequence can be convoluted reasoning.
For some, for example, it is beyond belief that anyone could argue for the construction of Vermont Gas Systems’ natural gas pipeline into Middlebury from Chittenden County because it would mean burning more fossil fuel years into the future. Yet, they think nothing of driving their cars to work, burning fuel oil (even if it’s a reduced amount as a supplement to renewables) to heat their homes, or flying the airways because, quite frankly, it takes too long for the train to get to California.
What’s interesting about that perspective is the sincerity of those who oppose the pipeline with an all-or-nothing mentality, but are quite accepting of other incremental steps that reduce their carbon footprint. They are fine driving a car that gets good mileage and justifying that behavior as doing the best they can within the realm of practicality; similarly, they feel good burning wood to heat their homes and using fuel oil or propane as a supplement (or vice versa) as an incremental step to reducing fossil fuel use. Fuel pumps are the rage in home heating these days, even though natural gas is one preferred fuel source to power the pump. That seems to be OK.
And yet, reducing the carbon imprint of a home 20 percent to 30 percent by using natural gas over fuel oil is somehow beyond the pale; beyond their rational comprehension of what is acceptable.
We also have no doubt that many who protest the natural gas pipeline into Middlebury also have not insulated their homes to the max, or replaced windows with the newest and best designs, or traded in their lawn mowers for electric models, or any number of things that could personally reduce their carbon footprints. And that’s OK. You don’t have to be a purist to argue a point. These noted parallels are less about the obvious hypocrisy of the argument, and more about the common sense realities of our world. We do what is feasible even when we believe in a cause as passionately as this.
But one might think that similar parallels would seep into the logic of the discussion.
If it’s OK to drive a car with high mileage, but still use fossil fuels to drive, then might it not be OK — even preferable — to use natural gas in homes or businesses that are currently burning propane or fuel oil and lower their carbon footprint substantially?
If we know it will take another 20, 30 or more years to wean ourselves from fossil fuel before other fuels and technology take its place, does it not make sense to transition to the lowest carbon-based fuels in the interim?
Is it not feasible that state policy can dictate (through tax policy or otherwise) the shift to renewable energy as the supply of renewable sources increases in the years to come?
Without a doubt the moral imperative on this issue is to reduce our carbon footprint. But that doesn’t necessarily mean banning the expansion of fossil fuels that lower our carbon output.
As Vermont Gas defends its proposal to build Phase 1 of the Addison Pipeline, the Public Service Board’s job is to consider what is in the best interests of the state in terms of economic prosperity — long-term and short-term — and in terms of insuring the utility is delivering the product in a manner that is cost effective for ratepayers. All are issues of economic importance and determined by quantifiable measures.
The moral issue is less quantifiable, and diffused by the logic of incremental progress.  But surely, as we consider how to accomplish the overarching goal of reducing our release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, there is more than one valid perspective.
As for the construction and siting of solar arrays the argument is vastly different. The goal is to site solar power arrays in a manner that works for the community. The objection some towns have to the current rules is that local zoning has been left out of the equation to the detriment of the community. It doesn’t have to be so.
We’re confident that solar industry leaders in Vermont, state legislators and town officials can work out reasonable siting and screening rules this summer and fall that mitigate many of the problems seen today. The object is not to prevent solar from being developed, but to develop solar in a way that gains public support and creates a more sustainable industry.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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