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Missing step - reduce fossil fuel consumption

By Richard Czaplinski

The building of solar arrays in the towns of Warren and Waitsfield is a small step in the right direction ("Waitsfield and Warren consider solar arrays," front page The Valley Reporter, March 27, 2014). It looks as if, from the increased rate of building of renewable energy structures (wind, solar electric and hot water, biomass) that society is serious about the need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

However, there is a large step missing and unless it is recognized, understood and a plan created and implemented to take that step, all the renewable energy installed will not stop the momentum that is taking us to very serious climate change consequences. That large step is reducing fossil fuel consumption as renewable energy comes on line.

It is clear from data collected from 1990 to 2010 by the Vermont Public Service Department that energy consumption has continued to grow at a steady rate in all end use sectors (residential, commercial, industrial, transportation) from 126 to 147 trillion BTUs per year (see pages TE.4 and TE.6 of Utility Facts 2013, Public Service Department). This increase in energy consumption is occurring even with all the efforts promoting energy efficiency. This is a paradox recognized and known as the "Jevons' Paradox." Why this occurs may be due to a multitude of reasons, such as more energy is available and used since it costs less, or more money is available to spend on other things that take energy to produce.

One would think that the state of Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan 2013 would have addressed this problem. It does not. The plan, in one section on Page 5 called "Overview of Energy Plan Strategies by Sector – Use Less and Save Money: Efficiency and Conservation First," would appear to address the issue. Conservation, using less energy, is the key, yet this section goes on and on about energy efficiency but addresses energy conservation only peripherally by suggesting a statewide education, information and outreach campaign to emphasize conservation and efficiency.

It is hard to conceive of a successful campaign when we have built a fossil energy intensive infrastructure that will be hard to transform. It won't be easy going back to railroads, designing smart, sustainable communities where we drive less and walk more, build smaller homes and fewer structures, convert existing structures, and use the earth to cool us in the summer and warm us in the winter. It is hard to see how we will produce less, buy less and transport goods shorter distances. Perhaps a very small and encouraging step is now occurring in the growing local food movement.

If, in fact, we do what needs to be done, we run into the problem of economic growth and whether there can be a different kind of growth while reducing fossil fuel energy consumption.

It seems that the question for the towns of Warren and Waitsfield is, How will each community reduce its fossil fuel consumption by an equivalent amount or more of the solar energy to be installed so that total energy use does not continue to increase as it has over the last 20 years? Can a small community take this larger step without cooperation and teamwork at the state, national and international levels?

Richard Czaplinski lives in Warren.

P.S. A clarifying note on power (kilowatts, kw) and energy (kilowatt-hours, kwh). Power is the rate at which energy is generated. Energy is power (kw) times time (h). The units used in the article to describe the total estimated energy produced in each community should be kwh per year, not kw per year. R.C.

 

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