There is a truism in the energy-efficiency world that the cheapest watt or Btu is the one you don’t need to generate. The same holds true with transportation. We primarily focus on miles per gallon, mass transit or electric vehicles, but like electricity, the cheapest and cleanest mile is the one we don’t drive. You can go out into the world or you can bring the world to your door. Welcome to the internet.
I’m not talking about home delivery through online shopping, which still deploys fleets of delivery vehicles; they’re just not yours. I am talking about a fundamental reshaping of the world’s economy.
No longer is the web about social media likes and watching movies. Increasingly, the web is about how we function. On the small scale, phone books, dictionaries and encyclopedias are obsolete. Homework is assigned and turned in online. Many of you are reading this on a screen.
But the web is not just about availability of information. Increasingly, you can consult with professionals, attend meetings and participate in group activities without traveling to get there. You can earn a college degree without setting foot on campus. These are the miles we are not driving and the greenhouse gasses we are not emitting.
Internet is no longer an option. Access is the new income inequality — some call it apartheid by address. A group of realtors I spoke with recently were in consensus that access to broadband is one of the first things home buyers ask about.
In short, despite concerns about personal data, too much screen time, and short attention spans, high-speed internet is fundamental to a modern economy, to attracting and keeping people in Vermont, to work, to play, and to the environment.
In addition to reducing miles traveled, high-speed internet is critical to an efficient, effective electric utility. In the 21st century, Vermont utilities don’t just sell kilowatts, they manage energy and electric loads for maximum efficiency.
They may do this by charging your electric car, your water heater, or your home battery late at night when demand is low and power is plentiful. Or maybe by cycling your air conditioner or freezer off for a few seconds at a time, or even tapping into that electric car or home battery when demand is highest in an effort to shave that “peak load” and save us all money.
The point is that this sophisticated load management demands high-speed two-way communications. Better than dial-up DSL.
In recognition of this situation, a bill in the House Energy and Technology Committee capitalizes on our shared need and calls for a feasibility study of electric utilities being allowed to become broadband providers. The opportunities are many: Utilities need this service, they already connect to your house, and there are cost savings — like rolling a single service truck instead of two to repair your lines in case of an outage.
The risks are also many, not least of which is asking a state regulated, electric utility monopoly business model to compete in a high-risk, lightly regulated, highly competitive market with huge corporate players. But it is an idea worth looking into. If you can work from home instead of driving to the office you save time, money and miles traveled, and the environment can breath just a little bit easier too.
Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is a state representative serving on the Energy and Technology Committee. He and his wife live in Middletown Springs.