Asa Hopkins, Director of Energy Policy and Planning, on Vermont’s Energy Situation

by Nat Frothingham

About Asa Hopkins: Hopkins holds a B.S. in physics, Haverford College, and a M.S. and a Ph.D. in physics, California Institute of Technology. He was an analyst at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory, and assistant project director for Under Secretary for Science Steven Koonin for the U.S. Department of Energy’s  (DOE) Quadrennial Technology Review. This review was inspired by the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review and is a sweeping national review of energy technology innovations and development potentials with the aim of creating a robust energy policy framework to guide the DOE.

 

In a recent phone conversation with The Bridge, Asa Hopkins, who is the state’s director of Energy Policy and Planning with the Vermont Department of Public Service, offered a blunt assessment of Vermont’s near- and long-term energy challenges.

Hopkins, who took up his energy post in October 2012 and who has overall responsibilities in following the lead of the governor and legislature in developing and implementing statewide energy policies, was totally clear about the much-discussed climate change phenomenon.

“There is most definitely a climate change problem,” Hopkins said. “The sum total of pulling carbon out of the earth and changing our atmosphere is changing our climate. There are multiple reasons to be wary of what that climate change will bring. We should do what we can to keep the climate much like the one we inherited, not the one we are creating.”

In discussing climate change, Hopkins had used the word problem. When asked if climate change was a problem in the commonly understood meaning of that word, Hopkins said, “It’s definitely at least a problem.” But it’s no ordinary problem either. “The scale of the problem is such, and the necessary adaptations needed to address it are such, that it’s bigger and more complicated than any typical problem,” he said.

However, Hopkins refused to use the word crisis to describe what’s happening to the world’s climate, as in climate change crisis: “When people use the word crisis, this implies that there’s a crash-course fix or solution. I’m not convinced of that. Nor that [a single crash-course fix] is the right way to address it. Framing it as a crisis almost makes it seem smaller than it is, because addressing it will require small and large changes about the way that almost anyone does anything. It’s too pervasive to be a crisis.”

Hopkins sounded at the very least skeptical that Vermont, as a state, will meet the goals the state has established to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of renewable energy without concerted and coordinated effort across many fronts.The state has already failed to meet the first greenhouse gas reduction target established by the legislature.

“By 2012 we were supposed to be 25 percent below 1990 levels [of greenhouse gas emissions],” said Hopkins. “Instead in 2012, we were very close to 1990 levels, emissions having risen and then fallen in the intervening years.”

The two remaining greenhouse gas reduction targets are, if anything, even more ambitious than the 2012 target. Those targets are, first, to be 50 percent below 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2028 and, second, to be 75 percent below the 1990 levels by 2050. As to the renewable energy target enunciated in the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan (the goal is to achieve 90 percent of Vermont’s energy through renewable sources by 2050), Hopkins believes these three remaining targets “will be a challenge to meet because these goals are aggressive and because energy systems don’t change very rapidly.”

“However, if we rise to the challenge, we can make real and substantial progress,” he added. He noted that cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2028 is just 15 years into the future. He said that to achieve the 50 percent cut by 2028, we would need to be powering many, perhaps most, of our cars by electricity and renewable fuels by 2028. But that’s not happening very quickly.

Anyone shopping for a car today and checking out the sticker prices can tell you that electric cars aren’t cheap. In today’s cash-strapped economy, people are still buying gasoline-powered cars, and when you drive a new car out of the showroom, it has an estimated useful life of 15 years. So today’s new greenhouse-gas-emitting car will still be on the road by 2028, when we’re supposed to see cuts of 50 percent below 1990 levels.

When I asked Hopkins what he most wished that Vermonters from all walks of life knew about energy that they don’t know already, he said, “Knowing that our electricity is relatively clean. We’ve made a lot of progress on electric energy efficiency, and we need to make more progress on transportation and thermal energy.”

So, in general, we’ve taken big steps already to remove a lot of the carbon footprint from our electrical energy sources. That leaves transportation and the thermal energy we use to heat our homes and buildings as our biggest unmet challenges.

On the transportation side, Hopkins noted the critical land use choices people make as in where they live and where they work: Are you close to a bus stop. Do you have to drive a car, or can you take a bus? And is public transit even available?

On the thermal energy side, Hopkins said. “On the building side, what we do know for sure is that insulation, air sealing—these are known things that work, that reduce energy loss and make buildings more comfortable.”

But what if I’m a homeowner barely scraping by, what do I do?

Said Hopkins in reply, “If you can find access to financing, having a stable, predictable loan to pay off instead of a seasonal, unpredictable fuel bill should be a more secure place to be.”

Then he went on to acknowledge a current unmet need: “One challenge that we are working on is how to get over that initial hurdle of access to capital.”

Hopkins, along with others in the Department of Public Service, will be reporting to the Vermont Legislature in December. That report will include more analysis with recommendations for new policy initiatives so that the state can meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets and renewable energy goals.

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Graph from Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan comparing Vermont’s annual energy expenditures and its gross domestic product.  Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce.

Graph from Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan comparing Vermont’s annual energy expenditures and its gross domestic product.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce.

A graph from Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan displaying Vermont’s contribution to greenhouse gases. Source: Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

A graph from Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan displaying Vermont’s contribution to greenhouse gases.
Source: Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.