The other cost shift


Over the past few years, Vermont has seen a steady increase in its use of renewable energy, especially with solar power. In big picture terms, that has been good and praiseworthy. The worst fears of climate change are scary to contemplate, and shifting from fossil fuels like coal and oil to renewables such as wind, solar and hydro power are steps in the overall right direction. But like everything else in life and energy, there are no simple straightline solutions that work equally well for everybody. The path forward for ever increasing amounts of renewable usage to enable the state to achieve its professed goal of obtaining 90 percent of its energy use by 2050 from renewables will become more problematic, at least in the short term, it would seem.

Before we explore the devilish details, let's take a moment to consider that big picture. Climate change, like the theory of relativity was until quite recently, is still, technically, a theory. But it is one with overwhelming preponderance of circumstantial fact on its side. In fact, the latest information suggests that the pace of climate change is accelerating, and the nightmarish spectacle of flooded coastal cities becoming uninhabitable may be a factor looming in the future of this century, not the next. That moves it into the lifespan of people alive and already in the workforce — not two or three generations of people yet to be born, That's a thought that concentrates the mind, and makes the pious sounding, if well-intentioned efforts made to date seem stunningly insufficient. On a global level, developing effective strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are leading contributors to climate change have been hamstrung by differences between the priorities of developed, industrialized nations and those who want to join that club. The latter group has argued that the industrialized nations are primarily to blame for causing the problem and so should bear the brunt of fixing it. At the least, the developing nations argue they should be allowed to get richer first before their energy costs increase as their share in the global war on climate change.

All of which may seem fair, but ignores the stubborn reality that we're all in this together, and to expect developed nations, many of whom are feeling far from economically robust at the moment, to accept a disproportionate share of the costs is unrealistic in the extreme.

Bottom line: it's a big problem, and while small scale steps towards removing carbon parts in the atmosphere such as installing a solar panel or two on a rooftop in Vermont, to say nothing of a larger solar "farm" is not going to change the dynamic all by itself, added together, it is at least movement in the right direction.

In the end, it all comes down to price and cost, like everything else. If the cost of solar or other renewables becomes less than fossil fuels, progress could be made, even quite rapidly. If not, the same tentative, slow motion steps will be the order of the day, until some dramatic catastrophic event that no one wants to see occurs, like the flooding of an island or major coastal city. Hopefully, we'll avoid that one.

But back to Vermont and solar and the new rules recently proposed by the state's Public Service Board on "net metering," a program which allows for rooftop solar installations and smallish solar farms to feed the electricity they generate back into the electric grid and obtain credits for that power. It sounds like a win-win deal until you realize that it subtracts from the pool the number of ratepayers who pay for the electric grid's infrastructure and maintenance. We raised this point in an earlier editorial comment a few months ago, but this question is gathering more traction now. As more utilities or electric cooperatives in the state has hit its maximum of 15 percent of their peak load that can come from small projects.

Somewhat in the way medical providers have been forced to "cost shift" the burden of paying for their services disproportionately to patients with health insurance coverage to offset the cost of those who don't, or who reimburse doctors and hospitals through Medicare and Medicaid, which don't typically cover the full cost of medical procedures, at some point those who don't opt to have a home solar array could find themselves fronting a bigger share of the utilities costs, to offset revenue lost to those who are net metering and no longer writing checks to the electric company.

That's not a long term sustainable situation. And the tipping point is approaching quickly. It's not realistic to say everyone ought to run out and get a solar panel or two on their roofs. A potentially painful collision is coming, where either electric companies charge more, or net metering is curtailed, or some kind of subsidy is offered to bridge the gap, which still winds up costing everybody more. And in Vermont right now, where basic "affordability" is a real issue for many folks, that's not a simple solution. Any way you look at it, something has to give. Vermonters have frequently weighed in negatively against the profusion of solar farms that have sprouted up around the state, often in open fields that sure look a lot like prime agricultural land, but the eventual solution maybe in more of those, not less.


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