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Watts: The Mile Not Traveled

In the early 1970s Amory Lovins called for a transformative new approach to providing electricity. He called it the nega-watt –  because, he said, the cheapest, greenest and cleanest watt of electricity is the one not used.

This was a radical idea and strongly opposed by the powerful electric utility industry and their corporate allies. Reducing electric use directly undercut their business model – one that was predicated on connecting large power plants with customers, building more transmission lines, and selling more electricity year after year.

But inspired by Lovin’s vision, government regulators around the country required utilities to invest in efficiency programs – programs designed to reduce electric use – even as utilities resisted.

Forcing Vermont’s then 24 utilities to invest in efficiency was an uphill battle. So we leap-frogged the utilities and created the first efficiency utility in the country – Efficiency Vermont - a state wide entity charged with investing in energy savings. And to fund the new utility a charge was added to all of our bills.

It was deeply contested at the time – as opponents insisted that the savings couldn’t be proven – and many wondered why all should have to pay to benefit the few. And yet, here, almost twenty years later, it’s been transformative. Efficiency Vermont now provides more than 15% of the state’s electricity. Every $1 invested in efficiency provides $2 of benefits. More than 90 percent of Vermonters have participated in the utility’s programs. And we all benefit. If our electric utilities can avoid purchasing more power – particularly the expensive purchases at peak times – we all save money.

Today the biggest energy challenge we face is transportation – spending almost $1 billion a year to fuel our cars and trucks – and most of that money spent outside Vermont. So I’d like to see us apply the nega-watt concept to transportation, and call it the nega-mile – because the cheapest, cleanest, safest and healthiest mile of travel is the mile not traveled in a motor vehicle.

As in electric efficiency, investing in using less must be the first approach – providing real alternatives to driving, sidewalks that go places, cycle lanes that are safe, more frequent transit in key areas, and ride-share incentives. Plus, as in the efficiency model, parking and driving would cost more.

It might be challenging to get there, but we did it with electricity. And it started with a big idea.