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McQuiston: Localvolts

There’s a joke about how plug-in electric cars aren’t powered by electricity, they’re powered by coal. And in many parts of the country, that’s exactly true.

Visualize it: a coal powered car with thick smoke billowing out of a rusty chimney off the back. In some places you could call them “burning-used-tires” powered cars or even “nuclear powered cars.”

Of course, in some places they’re wind or solar or hydro powered cars. Because in most places, including here, there’s a mix of energy sources.

But the idea of a “coal-powered car” is not so much of a joke as it is a metaphor of what really powers our economy. And that metaphor is being challenged in the most unlikely place by the most unlikely of people: In Vermont by environmentalists. Nobody, it seems, likes energy anymore. Coal is coal. Oil is oil. Nuclear is nuclear. And who, exactly, is going to clean up after them?

So we’ve embraced wind, solar and natural gas. Except now in Vermont, we don’t. They’re noisy or expensive or environmentally hazardous. Solar is heavily subsidized. Wind will require costly transmission upgrades if it expands. And many people living near the turbines are loudly opposed to them because of the noise.

There’s also a growing opposition to natural gas. Natural gas is a much more substantial power source than renewables. It’s much cheaper and cleaner than other fossil fuels. But running a natural gas line through Addison County has generated a grassroots effort by local opponents who claim it’s not cleaner than home heating oil. And they also don’t like the hydraulic fracturing used in North America to increase the gas supply.

Given all the opposition to all the lower-carbon options, it sounds as if we’re supposed to embrace oil from Venezuela or tar sands from Alberta. And that’s not likely. So, the question remains: if we don’t want the dirty fuels and we don’t like the alternative fuels, then what’s the alternative to the alternatives?

Solar is too expensive and too intermittent. Conservation is good, but it’s obviously not a generating source and presumably we’ll continue to need electricity.

That leaves us relying on Seabrook, the most vilified nuclear plant in the history of the United States when it was first proposed in the 1970s. A dubious prospect at best, so don’t be surprised if Vermont Yankee gets a second look here once Governor Shumlin steps down, let’s say, in 2019, or 13 years before Yankee’s operation likely would terminate.

Even Hydro Quebec – reliable, not too expensive, clean, plentiful and close by – had its ardent opponents when it expanded 20 years ago.

Perhaps we should change the metaphor. Just as with the localvore movement, where we take responsibility for our food supply, maybe we should initiate a “localvolt” movement to take more responsibility for our electric supply. Even if, as with Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi, we don’t all like everything that’s locally grown.

Tim McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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