Localizing Energy Downsides

Too often, states export the energy impacts of their decisions to other states. This is not just an issue for U.S. states, but for countries like Germany, which ended its domestic nuclear program only to buy nuclear energy from France.
By John Ackerly | August 22, 2015

This summer, Vermont energy decision-makers questioning whether to back away from natural gas line expansion and hydroelectric energy.  They are turning more to biomass, and scores of other states are facing similar questions and dilemmas. Why?

Balancing the increase of renewables, and the environmental impacts of both renewables and fossil fuels, can confound even the most ardent environmentalist.

In Vermont, for example, they aren’t willing to increase renewable hydroelectricity because of the biodiversity of impacts of dams, but also the carbon impacts.

Too often, states export the energy impacts of their decisions to other states.  Getting cheap electricity from Quebec’s huge hydroelectric dams is stirring up opposition from Vermont’s energy activists, and from their liberal state officials.  This is not just an issue for U.S. states, but for countries like Germany, which ended its domestic nuclear program only to buy nuclear energy from France.  Luckily, Germany has the capacity to reduce its imported French electricity by doubling down on locally produced heat and electricity.

What I find admirable about Vermont is its attempt  to avoid exporting its energy impacts.  Instead, it wants to build more local renewable hubs, moving away from both the regional electricity grid and the gas grid.  It was the first state to ban fracking, but part of that result is buying fracked gas from other states. They are asking tough questions about how to address that.

Many opponents of biomass energy should also calculate the impacts of where that energy will otherwise come from.  For opponents and proponents, the issues also revolve around local impacts.  Proponents want to keep energy dollars in their state and keep fossil fuels out, whereas opponents point to the local impact of increased smoke, and fears of additional logging. But at least the debate is about local impacts, rather than exporting the problems.

With solar, the worst of the environmental impacts is often in China, where toxic chemicals are handled very poorly, but the benefits may be in Vermont, where electricity from nuclear power, coal or hydroelectric is avoided. The quicker we can develop energy sources that we are willing to endure without exporting the problems to other counties, states, or countries, the better. With biomass, emitting the smoke where we live forces us to clean it up, because its right in front of us and in the air we breathe. With most other energy forms, the negative externalities have been too easy to ignore. What’s out of sight was put out of mind, and this led to massive oil companies like Shell and Exxon, which are barely accountable to anybody. 

We need more activists in China demanding that our solar panels don’t pollute their water or air. And we need more activists in Michigan and Minnesota demanding an end to the rampant growth of certain outdoor wood boilers that foul the air. In both cases, Chinese and American local and national governments failed to act quickly enough so that renewable technology can advance without excessive externalities. And in both cases, activists, engineers and innovators have found far better ways to make solar panels and to provide efficient, clean heat from biomass.

The transformation of energy in the U.S. is going through rapid changes, and it is places like Vermont that are asking the tough questions: How do we provide energy for our residents that doesn’t harm other residents, whether they live next door or around the globe?

Incentives for solar are on the downswing in many states because generous incentives over the past 5 to 10 years worked: They brought prices down while building an industry up. Soon, solar will be competitive without incentives. Incentives are just beginning to work with thermal biomass, as states across the Northeast, including Vermont, give support for indoor, automated pellet boilers.  This is starting to bring those prices down.

In Europe, pellet stove companies like Ravelli are starting to produce in such quantities that the per unit cost is dropping, just as it did with solar panels. And the service sector that oversees the quality of installations and does the repairs is now mature. As thermal biomass programs start requiring minimum efficiencies in the products they subsidize, the benefits to homeowners and institutions will be even greater, and the externalities even smaller.

Policymakers, activists and innovators in all states are working on these issues, but so far, it’s only in a dozen or so states where the momentum is really shifting.  It’s time to localize our energy and its impacts, and Vermont is as good a place to start as anywhere.

Authors: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat