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Op-Ed: Vermont’s Lessons for Controlling Emissions

Richard Watts
Richard Watts
Richard Watts

When Vermont’s climate council met for a recent public meeting, 110 people joined from across the state, traveling hundreds of miles virtually and spewing no carbon from tailpipes into the atmosphere. Fitting perhaps, given that transportation is the states’ largest greenhouse-gas source and telecommuting may be one of the most effective solutions.

Yet in the state’s 44-page 2021 annual transportation report, telecommuting gets a sentence. Efforts to reduce vehicles miles traveled get one, short paragraph — while most of the report focuses on how to move more cars and trucks.

This is the disconnect at the heart of the transportation dilemma. Agencies that a few decades ago were called highway departments have no mission, training or skills to reduce transportation emissions and manage ways that people can drive less. In fact, historically they have done the exact opposite — by building infrastructure to enable more cars and more driving.

Vermont now has some of the highest per-capita transportation energy use in the country — and deep gaps when you control for income, equity and access. Gas-eating SUVs and trucks are more than half the new vehicles sold; more than 90 percent of trips are in motorized vehicles, about 75 percent of which are people driving alone.

Yet Vermont only needs to draw a lesson from its past to leapfrog into a leadership role. Because when it comes to the electric sector, the state has some of the lowest per-capita electric energy use in the country — because of the nation’s first statewide electric utility focused on reducing electric use.

The electric story illustrates how Vermont and other states can solve their transportation-emissions problems — if they step away from the existing structures and start over.

The story goes like this: In 1976, in an influential article in Foreign Affairs, energy guru Amory Lovins championed the idea of the "nega-watt." The concept was simple — the cheapest, greenest unit of electricity was the one that was not used. Instead of investing in a new power plants in order to meet increased electric demand, society could invest in using less electricity, thereby reducing overall use, environmental effects and consumer’s bills.  The idea coincided with the energy crisis of the 1970s and skyrocketing energy prices.

Around the country, electric utilities and regulators struggled to implement the concept, which directly challenged years of training and experience. Electric utilities for decades relied on the "throughput" model for profit: More electric load meant more funding. Investing in using less was anathema to everything they knew.

Despite fierce prodding from regulators, Vermont’s major electric utilities proved themselves incapable of moving in this direction. So legislators and regulators gave up on the electric utilities and created a statewide entity,  Efficiency Vermont — the first utility with a singular mandate to reduce electric use. It worked! Using research-based approaches, Efficiency Vermont has saved Vermonters $2.6 billion in energy costs and millions of tons of CO2. Other states have copied the model.

The strength of the Efficiency Vermont model was the research-based approach to reducing private energy use. The utility started with the lowest-hanging fruit  — lightbulbs and motors — using research based approaches. Bills went down and quality of life went up with better and more efficient lighting and heating and cooling sources.

The parallel measure to the "nega-watt" in transportation is VMT (miles traveled in a vehicle). Here, the cheapest, greenest unit of energy is the one not used in a (gas or electric) motor vehicle. The goal would be to reduce the 7.3 billion mile Vermonters travel each year.

Yet there is no Vermont agency with a mission to reduce VMT. Take the recent surge in telecommuting. The pandemic has showed that more people can work from home. In research by the Center for Research on Vermont, more than three-quarters of Vermont’s workers said they would like to telecommute more. Nevertheless, depending on the organization, workers labor under a mishmash of rules and approaches regarding telework.

The patchwork of rules represents a major opportunity  for regulators — but no agency has reducing VMT as its mission. As with electric efficiency, turning to the same agencies, with their decades of experience in building and support car-focused infrastructure, won't produce substantive solutions.

Vermont should clean the slate and start over — and perhaps then the state again can set an example for the nation.

Richard Watts is the director of the Center for Research on Vermont and the former director of research at the Transportation Research Center at the University of Vermont.  

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