Lesser: Vermont’s greenhouse gas mandate is costly, symbolic environmentalism

By Jonathan Lesser

Vermont, along with 19 other states, has a long-term greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction mandate. The original mandate, signed into law in 2006, called for a 75% reduction below 1990 emissions levels by 2050. In 2011, then- Governor Shumlin raised the goal to a 90% reduction by 2050, something which the 2016 State Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) discusses in detail.

Photo by Carl Villanueva

A large solar array along Northwest Hill Road in Pownal.

Too bad the numbers don’t add up. Vermont’s mandate is much more than a requirement to supply consumers with electricity from renewable resources like wind and solar power. It will require virtually complete electrification of the Vermont economy to eliminate almost all fossil fuel consumption. Cars and trucks, oil- and gas-fired furnaces, industrial processes -virtually everything that now uses fossil fuels will need to be replaced with its electric counterpart.

In 1990, Vermont’s GHG emissions were estimated to be 5.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2-e). By 2012, those emissions had increased to 8.3 million tons. (The “equivalent” arises because CO2 is just one of many greenhouse gases and in Vermont, methane emissions from the state’s dairy industry account for almost 10% of GHG emissions.) The 90% goal means that GHG emissions must be reduced by about 5 million tons, to just over 500,000 tons of CO2-e by 2050, less than one ton per Vermonter. That’s less than the methane emitted by the state’s bovines in 2012.

By comparison, in 2014, total world GHG emissions were estimated to be around 45 billion tons of CO2-e. To put that in perspective, Vermont’s CO2-e emissions in all of 2012 were about two hours’ worth of world emissions.

Meeting the 90% GHG reduction goal will require replacing virtually all fossil fuel use in the state with electricity, and ensuring that there is enough electricity to do that. According to data published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Vermonters annually consume a total of 132 trillion BTUs (TBTUs) of energy. Of that amount, about 20 TBTUs (15%) was in the form of end-use electricity consumption. Fossil fuel use accounted for 92 TBTUs. Although the CEP discusses using biofuels, the amount of biofuel that could be produced on agricultural land is small, estimated at 4 million gallons. Thus, the prospects for a biofueled Vermont economy are slim. Moreover, biofuels cost far more than their fossil-fuel equivalents.

How much electricity will Vermont need? Suppose Vermont could reduce total end-use energy consumption to just 100 TBTUs by 2050. That’s 30 TWh of electricity, five times the amount consumed in 2015. Currently, Vermont gets 2 TWh of electricity each year from hydropower and another 1 TWh from burning wood. That leaves 27 TWh from wind and solar power.

Last November’s election appears to have confirmed that Vermonters don’t want thousands of giant wind turbines dotting the landscape. So, assume that additional electricity will be generated by solar photovoltaics. To produce 27 TWh of electricity from solar panels would require about 20,000 MW of solar capacity. According to data published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1 MW of solar PV requires eight acres of land. So, 20,000 MW would require 160,000 acres, or about 250 square miles. And despite cost decreases, solar power is still much more costly than power purchased on the wholesale market. Thus Vermonters would pay even higher electricity prices.

Solar PV is not available at night or on cloudy days. Thus, enough solar PV will need to be installed to store excess electricity in batteries. Current battery technology can provide 8 megawatt-hours of electricity for every MW of capacity, at a cost of about $1.2 million per megawatt. 27 TWh of electricity is equivalent to just over 80,000 MWh per day. Thus, suppose that on a cold, cloudy December day, electricity consumption is 100,000 MWh. Supplying that much electricity from batteries would require 12,500 MW of battery storage, at a cost of $15 billion. Even if battery costs drop by half, that’s still $7.5 billion.

Replacing all of the fossil-fuel-using equipment in the state and adding electric vehicle charging stations would cost billions of dollars more.

Curiously, nowhere does the 2016 CEP discuss the benefits of reducing the state’s GHG emissions. Perhaps that’s because there will be no benefits. Reducing Vermont’s two-hours’ worth of world CO2 emissions will have no measurable impact on world climate. Nor will similar GHG reduction mandates in other states. No measurable climate impacts mean zero climate benefits.

Ambitious, math-challenged legislators can always vote to impose costly and foolish mandates like Vermont’s with little pushback from voters. But Vermont’s mandate, like the mandates in other states, will impose additional costs on residents and businesses with zero offsetting benefits. Vermont’s is just another economically damaging exercise in symbolic environmentalism and political grandstanding.

Jonathan Lesser, PhD, is the president of Continental Economics and the author of the new report “New York’s Clean Energy Programs: The High Cost of Symbolic Environmentalism,” published by the Manhattan Institute. In 2003-2004, he was the Director of Planning at the Vermont Department of Public Service.

5 thoughts on “Lesser: Vermont’s greenhouse gas mandate is costly, symbolic environmentalism

  1. Jonathan,

    The EIA 132 TBtu end use in 2015 likely does not include tree burning for electricity and heating, which is not listed under consumption sources.

    See URL
    https://www.eia.gov/state/data.php?sid=VT#ConsumptionExpenditures

    In 2011, the electricity supplied to Vermont utilities was 6119.1 GWh, or 20.88 TBtu.

    That electricity required about 50.8 TBtu of primary energy, for an average conversion factor of 20.88/50.8 = 0.41, per the VT-Department of Public Service 2013 Utility Facts Report.

    Vermont’s 2010 total primary energy was 147.6 TBtu, thus electricity was 50.8/147.6 = 34.4% of total primary energy.

    Primary energy is the energy fed to power plants. It is about 8% less than source energy.
    Source energy is the energy quantity from a well, mine, forest, etc.

    http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/vermont-s-90-percent-renewable-energy-goal-to-cost-33-billion-by

  2. Just one more scheme dreamed up by a minority of tree huggers so they can feel good. No matter, the silent majority will have to foot the bill.

  3. “enough solar PV will need to be installed to store excess electricity in batteries” – Solution: Shut the state down at night. It worked before they had electricity… I note the carbon dioxide emission of the cows wasn’t mentioned, and I would expect it to be a significant amount. Indeed, the sum total of animal generated carbon dioxide could be reduced by reducing the number of animals – which could be accomplished by increasing the cost of maintaining them – by increasing the cost of energy and fuel. If it’s increased enough, people will be driven to leave the state, reducing their biological carbon dioxide production and their load on the electric supply, making supply meet demand by reducing demand. And reducing the demand for dairy products, for beef – hence reducing the cowpollution. Leftists want to increase illegal immigration AND reduce carbon dioxide production? Can’t they see that these contradict one another? More people, more carbon dioxide.

    • Francisco Machado And what are your plans to take yourself and your extended family and move out of our state? After all as you yourself stated…. ” More people, more carbon dioxide.”

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