Legislation is advancing in the Vt. Senate that would allow Efficiency Vermont and the Burlington Electric Department to spend up to $2 million over the next three years, with the focus on transportation and heating projects. They are supposed to be “free to innovate.”

This is all in the name of climate change and changing behaviors that contribute to fossil fuel emissions. It’s front and center in Montpelier because, as a rural state, transportation and heating make up a sizable percentage of not only our energy costs, but our emission levels. Vermont’s Department of Public Service [DPS] has noted that the state has made “limited progress” on its transportation-related goals to reduce emissions.

The goal is to get as many electric cars on the road as quickly as we can. The DPS has calculated that we would need 50,000 to 60,000 electric cars on the road by 2025 to meet the state’s goals.

When accomplished, our air would be clean and we would get a gold star for our dramatic reduction in emissions.

Except that would not be the case. If the only thing we did was to add 50,000 electric cars, the emission levels would be roughly the same as they are now.

Why? Aren’t electric cars cleaner to operate than our traditional gas guzzlers? They would be if they were powered by zero-emission sources of power. But they aren’t. When Vermonters plug in their electric cars they are tapping into the New England electric grid, and the regional grid is powered by — you guessed it — mostly fossil fuels.

A Charlotte physicist, Hans Ohanian, calculated that the carbon footprint of a Nissan Leaf electric car and a Toyota Prius is roughly the same when the production of both cars is taken into account. That means the programs to get more electric cars on the road are basically of no value when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. And that’s the point, right? If we don’t reduce emissions, why spend the additional money for electric cars?

Had we not shut down Vermont Yankee [40 percent of our power], the math would have been different since nuclear power has a much lower carbon footprint than the natural gas operations that power today’s electric grid.

That said, an option remains, which is to turn our focus to Hydro-Quebec, our neighbor to the north, where the source of energy — hydro — is abundant and cheap.

Then, it makes all kinds of sense to figure out ways to incentivize people to buy electric vehicles. Then, our emissions are drastically reduced. This is what we had hoped for with the proposed TDI project that was to lay an electric line from Hydro Quebec down the bottom of Lake Champlain and on to Massachusetts. Clean, cheap power.

The bid was lost. Vermont Yankee is no longer. And, for some indefensible reason, we don’t look at Hydro Quebec with the low-emission vision we should. It’s been a battle in Montpelier to even get power from Hydro-Quebec to be considered renewable, which is bizarre.

This isn’t a condemnation of electric cars; to the contrary, matched with the right power source it’s the ideal way forward. The power sources in place are largely fossil fuel driven, and compared to Hydro-Quebec are dirty. It’s not a Vermont problem only, it’s New England.

If Efficiency Vermont is to be allowed to be “free to innovate” perhaps the money would be better used to push this message to Vermonters and beyond. Let’s tell the truth. That would be innovative enough.

by Emerson Lynn

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