Commentary

John Greenberg: Shrink our energy waste, and replace only what we need

This commentary is by John Greenberg, who owns and operates The Bear Bookshop in Marlboro.

Lance Hagen’s letter criticizes my letter to the editor for issues I never raised, and in doing so gets pretty much all of his facts and assumptions wrong.

His biggest error is his first: the assumption that every BTU of energy currently being used in Vermont (however generated) should be replaced. This presumes that none of our energy is wasted, but that’s manifestly false. If it were true, there would be no need to weatherize Vermont buildings, improve the mileage of Vermont’s vehicles, continue to improve the efficiency of Vermont’s lighting, etc. 

Studies for the Vermont Department of Public Service and by McKinsey estimate that we waste at least around 20% of our electricity and there’s no reason to believe that we use fossil fuels any better than electricity. My own estimate is somewhere between one-third to one-half of U.S. (and Vermont) energy gets wasted. So instead of replacing ALL of our current use, we should replace only what we really need and eliminate the waste rather than trying to continue generating it.

Since Mr. Hagen provides no link to justify his statement that “87% of the energy (consumed in Vermont) came from sources that produce greenhouse gases,” I’ll accept it and move on.

He then suggests that we replace this 87% of the energy now used exclusively with electricity generated by solar panels. No one with a lick of sense would suggest such a thing, and to my knowledge, no one (except Mr. Hagen) ever has. In the last century or more, Vermont has never generated all of the energy it consumes. We have always imported 100% of our fossil fuels and still do. 

A huge portion of our electricity (even when the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was running) has always been imported too. Even considering just the electricity we do generate in state, solar has never been the only, let alone the primary renewable source. 

The problems don’t end there. In order to estimate the land use for solar panels, Hagen consults a nuclear lobby, presumably here. (If he wants information about GM cars, does Mr. Hagen consult only GM’s competitors?) Unsurprisingly, NEI proves to be a dubious source, providing no basis for its statistic that solar photovoltaic has a capacity factor of 16.5% to 28%. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the actual U.S. capacity factor since 2010 has been 20% to 25%. Both NEI and Lawrence Berkeley estimates necessarily look backward, but solar technology (panels and installation) is constantly improving, so future projects are very likely to have higher capacity factors than those already built.

NEI uses its questionable capacity factor estimates to generate a land use estimate, ignoring the fact that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has already calculated the averages in the U.S. for utility-scale solar here: 5.9 acres per megawatt for projects under 20 megawatts. Even if we were to use NEI’s lowball capacity factor estimate (16.5%) and its ensuing calculation that 5,400 megawatts of installed solar capacity would be needed to replace 1,000 megawatts of nuclear power, that works out to 31,860 acres, or just under 50 square miles (a square mile equals 640 acres), not NEI’s 75-square-mile figure. 

And NEI’s estimates for that 1,000-megawatt nuke are also clearly incorrect, because they ignore the significant amount of power used by nuclear reactors to power pumps, cooling towers, etc. In addition, assuming a 90% lifetime capacity factor is completely unconservative as well, since no nuclear fleet has come close over its entire lifespan. Vermont Yankee’s last years were in that range, but many of its first years were below 70%; its lifetime average was around 80-85%.

But we still haven’t reached the end of Mr. Hagen’s errors, because his final calculation (based on all these erroneously high inputs) assumes that all of the solar needed in Vermont going forward will be generated solely on open farmland: not one watt on rooftops, none on parking lots, landfills, etc. But of course, that assumption, like the others, is facially mistaken.

To sum up, as I have suggested many times, the smartest energy policy is also the least polluting and least expensive: namely, cutting down on wasted and unnecessary consumption. 

Vermont has been trying to do this — one way and another — for decades now. Figuring out how to generate the remainder requires us to think not just about broad environmental and economic considerations, which are generally part of the dialogue, but also factors less often considered: for instance, Vermont job creation (imports vs. in-state sources), tax policy, tourism, land use and planning, portfolio management (diversity vs. dependence on one or two sources), load shifting (to shave expensive peaks and balance consumption), etc. 

In other words, there are many factors to be considered, not just one or two. I have absolutely no problem admitting that solar panels occupy greater land areas than many other generating sources, but that’s one tiny part of a much larger discussion. 

I’ll close by repeating my Mencken quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”


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