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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Watts: Transportation Energy

Richard Watts
The Hinesburg – Burlington Bus in front of the Bristol Bakery in Hinesburg. More than 9000 cars each day pass this point. ";

The release of a new report on climate change underscores how far we have to go to reduce our emissions - and the kind of innovative thinking that will be needed to bring real solutions.

Back in the ‘70s, visionary energy entrepreneur Amory Lovins turned the electric energy world on its head by arguing for conservation and efficiency. Back then, energy growth was linear, and energy planning consisted of building power plants to meet next year’s demand.

Lovins framed his argument around the concept of two paths, business as usual or something radically different that served both the environment and the economy. He based this second path on the concept of the nega-watt – or the idea that the cheapest, greenest unit of energy is the one not used.

Electric utilities strongly resisted this idea, because the idea of selling less was in direct conflict with their business model. But in Vermont, we took it to the next level by creating an electric utility with the sole mission of reducing energy use – Efficiency Vermont – which became both a model and a national leader. It worked great in electricity, but unfortunately, when it came to transportation – the state’s largest consumer of energy - we abandoned the model.

Instead we have turned back to electric utilities for the solution. And, as the saying goes, when the tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So the current primary solution to reducing the energy used in transportation is the electric car.

A bolder and more effective solution would be to empower Efficiency Vermont to expand their mission and apply the same least-cost planning principle to transportation. Instead of calling it the nega-watt, we could have the nega-mile – thus formalizing the concept that the cheapest, greenest, least energy consuming mile is the one not driven in an automobile.

This would elevate public policies to strategies to help people drive less - and provide new incentives for public investment in sidewalks, bike paths, transit that works, and carpool options – just as Efficiency Vermont has done with lightbulbs, motors and more.

And as it did in the ‘90s with electricity, perhaps the path less traveled can make Vermont a leader again.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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