UVM author argues energy waste will economically tax cities

UVM author argues energy waste will economically tax cities


University of Vermont faculty member Austin Troy.

University of Vermont faculty member Austin Troy.
Photo courtesy of Susanna Kerest

Written by:
Tim Johnson

Burlington Free Press


Energy prices are likely to rise over the long haul, which means cities with a high rates of “energy metabolism” — the more gluttonous urban areas — will be at a competitive disadvantage in the relentless international struggle to remain economically vital.

That’s the thrust of “The Very Hungry City,” a book by University of Vermont faculty member Austin Troy that will be published Tuesday. He looks at how dozens of cities across the country, and abroad, make use of energy to heat and cool buildings, to move goods and people, and to provide water. He points out the excesses and the innovative approaches. His style is accessible and non-academic, combining analysis and anecdote in an engaging text sprinkled, as it happens, with references to not-very-urban Vermont.

Troy suggests that in some ways, the once-booming Sunbelt is on the wrong side of the metabolic curve and due for a come-uppance, perhaps opening the way for a Frost Belt comeback. There’s the Sun Belt’s water problem, of course, but the Frost Belt also has a slight advantage in the heating/cooling department — air conditioning in the Southwest depends heavily on electrical generation, which uses energy less efficiently than the common heating systems of the Northeast.

When it comes to transportation, car-dependent Los Angeles suffers from metabolic excess. In Copenhagen, by contrast, 90 percent of the residents own bikes and just 53 percent own cars.

“In Stockholm,” Troy said in an email, “the whole city is designed around mass transit and a sophisticated congestion pricing system regulates car use.”

An associate professor in UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Troy specializes in urban environmental management. His book is distinct from other energy/climate books of the last few years, he said, “because it looks specifically at the intersection of cities and energy. Unlike many books that focus on the environmental virtues of reducing energy use or carbon footprint, this book’s argument is largely economic — namely that cities that are energy-hungry will be less economically competitive as energy gets more expensive.”

He sees hopeful signs in Denver, where “a program is attempting to create net zero energy use neighborhoods, one block at a time,” and in Portland, Ore., where “regional planning and growth boundaries are guiding development to prevent energy-wasting sprawl.”

The book’s narrative drops in on Vermont several times, summarizing the long, tortuous story of the Circumferential Highway and the much shorter story of the Champlain Flyer (“the nation’s shortest commuter rail line” which also turned out to be “the nation’s least used rail line.”) Troy has kind words for Efficiency Vermont, the state’s energy efficiency utility.

“Nationally, Efficiency Vermont is a trendsetter, and is recognized as a leader in innovative approaches,” Troy said.

So, how does Burlington stack up in the energy-metabolic scheme?

“Burlington is doing well compared to other small, isolated metropolitan areas, or ‘micropolitan areas,’” Troy said. “Areas of this type are almost always highly car-dependent and have a small share of people using transit. Chittenden County has a good bus system, but like in other micropolitan areas, things tend to be very spread out, parking tends to be abundant, and traffic minimal, so the barriers to car use are small, while the barriers to transit use are larger. ... Burlington is more well-known for its energy efficiency in buildings.”

The notion that energy prices are due for a surge has moved from the fringe to the mainstream, Troy said. After a century or more of enjoying “incredibly cheap energy by historical standards,” he said, “We’re at the cusp of a new era when it comes to energy pricing and availability.”