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Energy Solutions

What I’m Hoping for in the New Year

Among my wishes: a carbon tax, increased awareness of resilience, and more of us leaving the car at home

An early-morning photo taken on the West River Trail in Brattleboro, Vermont. With planned improvements, this will become a great commuting route for bicyclists.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson

With snow gently falling as the holiday season winds down, I find myself reflecting on the New Year and what we might hope for. World peace of course, and solving the poverty conundrum would be great.

But what about energy and the environment? Here are some thoughts:

We will finally put a value on carbon

In mid-2012, the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) made headlines by sponsoring strategic meetings about the merits of a carbon tax. While not fully embracing the idea, AEI seems to be open to carbon taxes — generating ire among their conservative brethren. Also in 2012, former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, launched an organization promoting carbon taxes, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative.

I have long favored some form of tax on carbon or nonrenewable energy, rather than the more complex cap-and-trade approach that is being tried in a few places, most notably California. As Al Gore said in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, we should tax things we want to discourage, like resource consumption and waste generation, and not tax things we want to encourage, like earnings and savings. With elevated concern about climate change generated by Superstorm Sandy, perhaps 2013 will be the year to finally consider sensible ideas like carbon taxes.

More of us will recognize the connection between resilience and sustainability

Following Superstorm Sandy, some editorials appeared suggesting that New York City suffered more than it needed to because the focus had been on sustainability or green rather than resilience. I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that the two are inextricably linked — or at least should be linked. Each benefits the other.

The Resilient Design Institute, the nonprofit organization I created in mid-2012, will be working to strengthen this link between sustainability and resilience throughout 2013. I’m excited about that, as I believe that resilience can be the route to far greater buy-in to green building practices (along with sensible urban planning, ecosystem protection, and support for local food production). By the end of 2013 I’m hoping that resilience will be widely understood and increasingly embraced.

Options will become available for low-interest, long-term loans to finance efficiency improvements

The PACE (property-assessed clean energy) program, when rolled out in a few cities between 2008 and 2010, was touted as a key solution to allow more homeowners to affordably finance energy conservation retrofits and renewable energy installations. Loan payments in PACE programs were able to be paid back as part of a homeowner’s property tax bill, and if the house was sold the loan would transfer with the house.

Unfortunately, concern about who’s first in line for payment in the event of a default led to opposition to PACE financing by the loan agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Normally, property taxes are superior to debt obligations, and there was concern by lenders that PACE could enable home improvement loans owed to municipalities to be repaid before mortgage obligations to lending institutions.

As this issue is being worked out, residential PACE financing is not available in most places, though there are some exceptions. I’m hopeful that 2013 will see PACE financing — or something like it — become commonplace nationwide.

More utility companies will embrace solar power

Critics point out that photovoltaics (PVs) can’t replace our conventional power generation options. Indeed, it can’t do so alone, but it can be an increasingly important part of a long-term plan to move us toward a carbon-neutral society. Utility companies should look to Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility company, for progressive policies to expand the implementation of solar.

Small-scale, distributed PV systems will play a key role in achieving Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, which calls for a shift to 90% reliance on renewable energy sources by the year 2050. Utility companies will play a key role in getting us there.

Leaving the car at home will become cool

Of all the challenges we face in transitioning to a low-energy, low-carbon future, none will be harder than reducing our addiction to the gasoline-powered automobile. One solution to this dependence will be electric and plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles with distributed PV systems charging those car batteries. But we can also make tremendous strides by more actively embracing non-automobile transportation options.

Public transit needs to be a key part of this. Light rail is an option where population density justifies the huge investment. A far-less-costly system, bus rapid transit, was developed in Curitiba, Brazil in the early 1970s and allows low-cost buses to function more like light rail, with passengers quickly boarding from platforms at the floor level of the bus having pre-paid their fares. More than a dozen cities in the U.S. have put bus rapid transit systems in place, and many others are on the drawing boards.

In rural areas like much of Vermont, public transit can consist of smaller buses that travel the major routes on a regular schedule. Making these rural bus systems more viable may depend on increased frequency and employers helping to subsidize the cost.

Making our communities more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists is also part of the answer. We need to implement traffic-calming measures and build bicycle paths and safer bike lanes on our streets. In my own community, for example, the new West River Trail that extends from the Marina Restaurant in Brattleboro to Rice Farm Road in Dummerston, provides a nice alternative for bicycle commuters in good weather. Maybe 2013 can put us on the path to a future that moves beyond the standard automobile.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. watercop | | #1

    I could not disagree more about the last point
    It is delusional, sheer abject fantasy, to posit that any but a tiny minority will voluntarily give up the automobile in favor of mass transit, no matter how supposedly convenient.

    Most people forgo cars for one of just two reasons...they can't afford a car or they can't park at their destination. Continued decentralization of work locations means fewer commuters face parking problems, and increasing affluence worldwide renders cars ever more affordable.

    Most folks will not tolerate excess government interference that operates to artificially reduce access to automobile ownership and use. Even in areas where car costs are artificially driven up to subsidize mass transit (witness $10 bridge tolls around NYC) folks still drive to the point of causing rampant congestion. The rest of us resent the transit subsidy burdens placed upon NYC drivers and will oppose government effort to emulate that in our home towns.

    Americans are loath to give up cars, and much of the developing world seeks to emulate western access to automobiles.

    Our only hope is to "green" private automobile travel via a combination of increased distance per unit energy and transitioning to more environmentally benign fuels.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Curt Kinder
    A cursory study of public transportation policies in different countries reveals that sensible governmental programs strongly affect the percentage of people who use public transportation for daily commuting. You (and many other Americans) may resent what you call "transit subsidy burdens," but many Europeans willingly accept these government programs and are proud of their transit systems.

  3. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #3

    Since when...
    Since when have paved marked bicycle path and bike lanes become mass transit? (Or mayhaps that's what passes for Mass Transit in bucolic Brattleboro VT? ;-) )

    In the late 1980s I lived in a first-world European city where biking was by far the most convenient method of getting around, followed by (punctual and frequent) subway/tram/train service (just don't miss the last train and be stuck riding the night-bus freak-show eh? :-) ) I neither owned nor wanted a car while living there, but managed to do at least SOME driving when the situation warranted it.

    But sprawling US suburban development and long daily commutes make living without a car difficult or impossible in much of the US, and there's no easy transit solution for at least half of the population, no how much money you plowed into it.

    BTW: Bridge & highway tolls are usually (but not always) targeted funds directed toward paying off the capital expense & maintenance of the roadways, with but a pittance (if anything) directed toward non-automotive public transportation services. Even then it's rarely paying the entire cost of the roadway infrastructure. In NYC if drivers had to bear the entire infrastructure cost of roads & bridges it would be unaffordable for many, just as subway fares would be unaffordable if not subsidized. Pitting the transit system against the drivers is usually a false dichotomy, but is sometimes used to score political points.

    Sometimes it's drivers against drivers: In Boston's "Big Dig" the vast majority of the construction was on the north-south roadways, which are toll-free, but the east-west Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is saddled with the debt, which extends continuing collection of tolls many decades into the future, and long after the original 1955 construction was paid off, which was when tolls were supposed to end. (How fair is that?) Meanwhile Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trudges along without collecting a dime from those tolls (though it's subsidized in other ways.)

    Bottom line toll revenues aren't always going where you think they are (or should be going), and freeways aren't actually "free" nor fully paid for by those who drive on them.

  4. Alex Wilson | | #4

    Mass transit and bike lanes
    Perhaps you misread the blog. I hadn't suggested that bicycling was a form of mass transit. I described both mass transit and making our communities more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly as strategies to begin reducing dependence on automobiles. And neither is much of an option in Brattleboro, no matter how bucolic it is.

    I tried to make that point that getting away from automobile dependence will be very difficult.

  5. user-757117 | | #5

    Yes to resilience.
    I couldn't agree more with your sentiments about increasing resilience.

    Energy efficiency for efficiency' sake is great but it is no "solution", given the way global energy markets work and the growth-based economic system we rely upon.
    Energy efficiency for resiliency's sake seems like a "no-brainer", given the way things are going.

  6. user-757117 | | #6

    Carbon taxes?
    Sounds like a not-so-bad idea in theory...
    But shouldn't we get rid of the "positive reinforcement" before we concern ourselves with "negative reinforcement"?

    From the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2012 "Factsheet":

  7. CalBungMelb | | #7

    Carbon tax in Australia
    We had a carbon tax introduced in July 2012. It's set currently at $23/tonne carbon dioxide. This has rasied residential electricity prices by about 10%. The tax is having a financial effect on some large energy users (there were various offsets, compensation packages etc) What it has done is focus attention on energy use. Along with a number of other factors this is damatically dropping electricity use in Australia. After many years of projections of increasing electricity consumption we're now dropping back to usage levels from the last decade.

    I was talking to a large energy user a couple of weeks ago. They were actively looking for cost-effective renewable solutions to decrease their liability under the tax. So I guess teh tax could be seen to be having the effect in some areas as aimed for by the legislation.

  8. user-757117 | | #8

    Response to David Coote
    That's interesting - I didn't realize that there was a carbon tax in play in Australia.
    That must be a federal tax?

    Do you know what kind of subsidies the Australian government still pays out (if any) for fossil fuel energy?

    I'm still trying to wrap my head around whether it makes any sense to tax something on one end, while simultaneously enabling it on the other...

  9. CalBungMelb | | #9

    It's a Federal Government
    It's a Federal Government tax.

    There's carbon taxes in operation in quite a few countries now. With respect to subsidies for fossil fuels a few groups have had a go at calculating these numbers both here and overseas.

    Don't forget that politics is the art of the possible. If the aim of teh carbon tax is to encourage uptake of renewables and ths is the observed effect it has achieved its goals irrespective of what subsidies for fossil fuels may still exist. One way to remove subsidies for fossil fuels is not to use the fossil fuels :)

  10. user-757117 | | #10

    Response to David Coote.
    Thanks for your additional comment.
    Certainly I would never argue with observed results, so maybe national carbon taxes should be part of a "solution" to our global carbon emissions problem...
    I'm still not sure, however, that the issue of subsidies can be ignored.

    It seems likely to me that carbon taxes, while having an effect on demand regionally, or nationally, will also serve to force an increase in the quantity of fossil fuels exported to regions or nations that do not penalize the use of those fuels - possibly at a slightly cheaper price because of reduced local demand.

    For example, Australian demand for Australian coal may be down because of decreased national demand for electricity, but coal is traded globally and so there is always market demand for Australian coal in other (developing) economies.

    In a world of global energy markets, if we really want to leave fossil fuels in the ground (which is, in the end, what we need to do) we should probably take issue with the subsidizing of the fossil fuel business, which will make every effort to keep it's product going to market somewhere.

    But, addressing carbon emissions is so much less of a political problem locally if we can't "see" it happening in our own back yards ;-)

  11. CalBungMelb | | #11

    Demand for coal in


    Demand for coal in other countries will be partly driven by price. But if demand for Australian thermal coal in Australia drops there are many factors influencing whether or not this will lead to increased demand for thermal coal in another country. These would include whether this coal is usable in plants in said country due to technical and regulatory factors, possible import restrictions, whether the plant can sell more electricity and, of course, the other participants in the supply chain may choose to absorb any price drop as increased profit.

    Interestingly, many coal fired plants recently built in China use more efficient technology than is commonly used in the West so an increase in coal-fired generation there if equal to a drop in coal-fiored generation in the West could decrease overall emissions.

    And because Denmark in particular with wind, Germany with PV's and Sweden, Finland and Austria with biomass have had government policies for some decades to encourage uptake of renewable technologies this has led to substantial declines of the price for renewables. The price of PV's, for example, has dropped dramatically over the last few years with much of the increased demand from Germany.Over 20GW of PVs in Germany now, much of it privately owned rooftop installations!

    A country contemplating choices for energy production has a broader palette of choices now than would have been the case if this increased demand hadn't occurred.

    If Denmark etc had sat on their hands until fossil fuel subsidies were removed I suspect they would have had a long wait and it is less likely that we would have seen the increased availability of good quality lower cost renewable energy kit.

  12. user-757117 | | #12

    Response to David Coote.
    Hi David,
    Just to be clear, I don't advocate that anyone "sit on their hands" but I think it is important for people to realize that the world is far more complex than we might assume it to be.
    While I don't disagree with many of your points, I feel compelled to point out that some are in contradiction with observational data.

    For example, you're right that many factors influence global demand for coal, however the trend is clear - globally we are consuming more coal every year.
    While it may be true that China (for instance) is building more efficient coal fired generation facilities, that hasn't slowed China's increasing appetite for energy supplies.

  13. Calloused_Thumb | | #13

    Cars vs mass Russia; Also revamp real estate appraisals
    (After posting I realized this thread was ancient, but oh well...)

    I was fortunate to spend summer 1993 living in a top floor flat in St Petersburg Russia. Looking out the window one saw a nearly unbroken forest canopy throughout the neighborhood, peppered with identical soviet-era high rises. (A Soviet comedy of the time had a drunk returning late one night, and getting off at the wrong (but identical) subway stop, found his way to "his" apartment, where the key fit, and he stepped into a surreal existence in the other man's universe.)


    Each day, the denizens would march through their forested blocks to the nearest big street, and there catch the bus, the tram, or march to the subway.

    As the economy became more free wheeling, I heard later that after German refrigerators, the big consumer purchase everyone wanted was their own car. And with the explosion of private cars, they needed places to park them. But the damn trees were in the way. At the time of my last contact (years ago) the trees were losing, and this forested high density neighborhood was becoming like any other dirty grey city.


    My dream is that the housing finance industry will be restructured ever more dramatically so that knowledgeable buyers willing to pay a substantial markup for energy efficiency and renewable power will be able to get the financing, and in that way establish benchmarks for the appraisers to plug into their cookie cutter real estate appraisals, so that two otherwise identical houses side by side will appraise vastly different, just because one is low carbon and energy efficient and the other is not. We've made some baby steps in that direction, but isn't nearly enough.

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