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Energy plan … dream on

Vermont has its very own energy plan and isn’t that a relief? The plan envisions a day not so far in the future (2050, to be exact) when 90 percent of the energy consumed by Vermont will be generated by renewable sources. Ninety percent seems like a pretty good number. Better than eighty but not as good as one hundred which some soreheads were no doubt holding out for. But most of us would settle for realizing ninety percent of our dreams. We must all learn to compromise in this veil of tears.

The energy plan is, of course, a political document, which means that it was written with a specific constituency in mind. That constituency, in this case, is an elite that holds to beliefs that, among some, assume the form of quasi-religious convictions. The first and most fundamental of these beliefs is that energy use is sinful. In Vermont, the green religion looks upon the consumption of, say, gasoline in cars or electricity in outdoor lighting the same way a red clay Baptist preacher views the drinking of moonshine. It may be fun in the short run but it leads, inevitably, to damnation.

In Vermont, we impose a tax on our electricity bills for the purpose of funding the work of missionaries who travel the state delivering the message of conservation unto the heathens. Efficiency Vermont wants you to consume fewer kilowatts. For your own good, of course, and the plain implication is that you are too weak to accomplish this kind of restraint on your own. Without firm guidance, you will just go out and binge on incandescent blubs. That you pay for your own moral instruction seems only fair. Consider it a tithe. Not quite the tenth part of all you own, but trending that way.

In the Vermont theology of energy, there is sin and, then, there is SIN. Renewables are less sinful than their counterparts and that seems a pretty straightforward distinction. But not so fast there, ye unenlightened one. There is more to heaven and earth … etc. etc.

If you make electricity by damming water and then using it to turn a turbine, then that ought to be considered a “renewable” source, at least until the river runs dry. You would think so, anyway.

But you would be wrong. Or would have been until recently, anyway. For a while, the Vermont legislature set a limit on the amount of electricity a hydro project could produce before it lost its “renewable” designation, recalling the sort of elaborate thinking that mediaeval theologians engaged in when determining precisely how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Eventually, in discussions of this sort, one inevitably arrives at the Big Questions. And, in the case of Vermont’s energy plan, and its faith in renewables, that question is … Why?

If you concede that we need energy at all (a hard one for some true believers) then why does it have to come from renewable sources?

The answer, of course, if that to rely on sources that are non-renewable is to put the environment at risk and bring on the end of days through global warming.

So we are following a holy imperative to reduce – yea, even to eliminate – the discharge of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, lest the earth shall perish from warming.

But, again, not so fast there.

About one-third of the electricity currently consumed by Vermonters is generated by a nuclear plant on our side of the Connecticut River. The plant emits no greenhouse gases. The plan, however, doesn’t have any use for this plant or its electricity. Rather, it foresees a time when more of Vermont’s electricity will be generated by the burning of natural gas which does emit some greenhouse gasses.

Vermont’s rejection of nuclear is not a matter for discussion, according to Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller, who supervised the drafting of the report. Even if the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is authorized by the courts to continue operating for another twenty years, the state will not taste of its tainted electricity. Not at any price. Vermont Yankee could be selling its electricity for one-tenth of what it costs to buy the stuff produced by means sanctified as “renewable” and it would still be “no sale.”

This kind of absolutism is okay for theological arguments but for most of us energy isn’t really an abstract. We actually care about costs. We worry about the electric bill, or the one the oil delivery guy leaves behind when he pulls out of the driveway, or the extortionate cost of filling the tank on the car or truck. But none of this seems of much concern to the planners. They are looking off into the future and what they see is an energy paradise when life will be ninety percent perfect.