9-13-16 – The Panama Canal and the Renewable Mandate

by Guy Page

It may sound odd, but when I think of Vermont’s pursuit of 90% Total Renewable Energy by 2050, I think of Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Never heard of him? He was the creator of the Suez Canal who later attempted the digging of the Panama Canal under the French flag.

Inspired by his success at Suez and a transcendent if naïve 19th century belief in the unstoppable power of Modern Progress, de Lesseps led the national effort from 1870-94 to dig a “sea level” canal across Panama. When engineers warned the canal couldn’t be finished, de Lesseps counseled faith in France, progress, and himself. After a quarter century, failure was complete: no canal, a bankrupt nation, and 25,000 dead from accident, malaria and other tropical diseases.

The goal is not the only issue

Like building a trans-isthmus canal, pursuing a future with safe, clean, affordable, reliable energy is an ambitious, worthy goal. Five years after the unveiling of Vermont’s landmark pro-renewable 2011 Clean Energy Plan, there has been much progress in solar and wind development. Yet as with de Lesseps’ canal, some basic, foreseeable problems remain unsolved:

First, overdevelopment. Instate wind and solar development can’t meet our growing megawatt/hour needs without drastically remaking our treasured landscape. To compensate for weaker output compared to nuclear, hydro and natural gas, wind and solar power require vast acreage, premium siting, and proximity to consumers. Vermont is only just starting to realize what a 90% renewable portfolio will really look like. And it is no good to say Vermont can conserve its way out of overdevelopment. The CEP clearly states Vermont will need more electricity than ever to replace the fossil fuels now energizing our cars and home furnaces. Also, more extreme forms of conservation – the virtual exclusion of the private car, air traffic, and single family home ownership – are unacceptable to the average Vermonter and thus are doomed to failure.

Second, wind and solar produce power at nature’s whim, not when we need it. This intermittent power problem makes transmission more unreliable and difficult to manage as the ratio of wind/solar power to total load grows. The purported solution – efficient battery storage – does not exist in applicable, market-ready form. As with the followers of de Lesseps, we are told that technological breakthrough is just around the corner. Skeptics are told to have more faith in progress, and to keep the workers busy and the money flowing.

Appropriate technology

Perhaps technology will solve these problems. After all, the Panama Canal was eventually built – but not where, when, and how de Lesseps had envisioned. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt learned from France’s mistakes. Twenty years after the French plan failed, the United States completed a redesigned, relocated Panama Canal with sound planning and available technology.

Vermont should imitate TR and rework its energy future with a plan that doesn’t require landscape devastation or non-existent technology. Carbon reduction, the much-stated reason for a 90% renewable portfolio, can be achieved by state and regional policies embracing existing regional hydro and nuclear power with  more deliberate growth in wind and solar. In August, New York State took a bold step by including nuclear power in its clean power portfolio. Vermont and the rest of New England should consider following suit.

When (or if) the Big Energy Breakthrough happens – whether efficient storage of intermittent power, or a totally new form of power generation – we’ll be ready for it. Until then – pardon my skepticism, call me plodding and cautious, but our future is too important to leave to faith in progress.

– Guy Page is communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership (www.vtep.org). 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Sawhill September 17, 2016 at 12:31 am

The Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) for both wind and solar is likely less than 1 and so is economically not worth doing – except for crony capitalism, the destruction of Vermont’s environment, and the feel good delusion of saving the planet.

The “leave it in the ground” socialism is uninformed chanting by those who probably believe that humanity is a virus on Planet Gaia, modern civilization is evil and only a return to Mother Nature is good. Michael Crichton in his remarks to the commonwealth club from 2003 nailed that fiction:

Carbon Dioxide emissions from the oceans and from industry are greening the planet, not polluting it (we achieved clean air and water in the ‘70s and ‘80s):
These plants can economize on water and nitrogen and are, of course, our and all animals supply of oxygen.

We are growing more food on less land than ever before in history:
The social benefit of carbon is free plant fertilizer for the entire globe. I have never eaten sweeter mangoes than are now grown in the Sahel in Nigeria, a desert in transition.

The junk pseudo-science about running out of resources and the sustainability meme is social engineering –

The notion that Elon Musk and a PowerWall will be the fix for electricity storage for intermittent, unreliables is most likely a fantasy, but has made Musk a lot of subsidy money:

The only reasonable and effective EROEI is for “pumped hydro” which is geographically possible in Vermont.

Instead of subsidizing current “renewables” we should be investing in R & D to find the energy technologies of the future. Wind and solar simply do not have and never will have the energy density that baseload requires. It is beyond discrimination that the UN and the World Bank will only support wind and solar in developing countries and proof that these and other agencies have simply committed to progressive propaganda and push a “new world government”.

Thanks for your essay.


Jim Bulmer September 17, 2016 at 1:09 pm

How quickly we forget!!! Remember VERMONT YANKEE????? Is 90% renewable written in stone?? OR is it a pipe dream on somone’s wish list? Conserve and be sensible, sure, but let’s be real. Unlss or until somene invents a better wheel, we’ll have to make do with the technology we have available.


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