By Jonathan A. Lesser, PhD.
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 percent reduction below 1990 emissions levels by 2050. In 2011, then Governor Shumlin raised the goal to a 90 percent reduction by 2050, something which the 2016 State Comprehensive Energy Plan discusses in detail.
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. 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 percent of GHG emissions.) The 90 percent 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 percent 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 percent) was in the form of end-use electricity consumption. Fossil fuel use accounted for 92 TBTUs. Although the state energy plan 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 [terawatt hours] of electricity, five times the amount consumed in 2015. Currently, Vermont gets 2 TWh of electricity each year from hydropower and one 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 (PV). To produce 27 TWh of electricity from solar panels would require about 20,000 MW [megawatts] of solar capacity. According to data published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one 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 eight megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity for every MW of capacity, at a cost of about $1.2 million per MW. Twenty-seven 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 Comprehensive Energy Plan 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, Ph.D., 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.