It’s 2023 and the question is no longer “is climate change here” but “what is Vermont going to do to stop it?”
A proven way for Vermont to reduce our climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions is to direct our utilities to stop purchasing electricity generated by burning fossil fuels and switch to electricity from local and regional wind, solar, and hydropower. We already have a law in place, the 2015 Renewable Energy Standard, that takes us part way there. The next step is for the Vermont Legislature to take action aligning us with the other New England states that are working towards a 100% renewable energy future.
As part of this renewable energy future, Vermont must do its part and commit to generating more of its own electricity from in-state renewables. The interconnected nature of New England’s energy grid means every kilowatt hour of energy from a new solar panel built in Vermont replaces electricity generated by natural gas, coal or oil somewhere else in New England. It’s an easy way to fight climate change and failing to commit to building renewables in Vermont will slow the expansion of clean energy in the region and keep fossil fuel plants generating.
But there are other compelling reasons besides fighting climate change for why should we generate more of our own power here in Vermont.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: When Vermont’s renewable energy deployment peaked in 2016, 6,965 Vermonters were working directly in the renewable field around the state (by comparison, Vermont’s largest private employer, UVM Medical Center, employs about 8,700 people). Importantly, the renewable sector employs people from a wide range of educational backgrounds — laborers, electricians, engineers and these jobs are geographically dispersed throughout Vermont. The renewable sector is unique in that it supports broad-based growth for both the blue-collar and white-collar workforce across the state.
Ending Environmental Injustice: In 2020, Vermont ranked 49th in the country in terms of the share of the electricity that it used that it generated within its own borders. Vermont does not have a single coal, oil or natural gas fired power plant that contributes significantly to our energy needs- and none are planned to be built. So when Vermonters don’t rely on in-state renewables, we are asking our neighbors in Quebec, New York, and throughout New England to bear the environmental consequences of our need for electricity- land flooded for hydropower, the danger of living next to a nuclear power plant, air pollution from coal, oil and natural gas fired power plants, etc.
More Energy Independence: When we build new renewables, we further insulate ourselves from the price shocks that other states experience from the volatile fossil fuel market. Rising fossil fuel prices since the war in the Ukraine began have caused electric rates to go up 8% nationally and some ratepayers in New Hampshire to see their bills go up $70 a month. On the other hand, when a new solar project is built in Vermont, the rates are locked in for 10 to 20 years which means we know what we are going to pay for this power unlike the price of electricity from fossil fuels which are impacted by foreign politics, supply chain disruptions, freakishly cold winters, transportation costs and more.
Luckily, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed by President Biden this summer has given Vermont a once-in-a-generation chance to get hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money over the next decade to make the transition to renewables even more affordable and help us kick our addiction to electricity made from burning fossil fuels.
Even before the Inflation Reduction Act, Vermont was well on its way to meeting our existing goal of 75% renewables by 2032 while maintaining the second-lowest electricity rates in New England. Given the decreasing price of installing solar power over the last decade and the millions in tax credits available from the federal government to go solar, there is no reason to believe that creating a plan for sensibly sized and located renewables would cause a noticeable increase to our electric bills. Updating our Renewable Energy Standard now to get Vermont to a 100% renewable energy future would give an important signal to the marketplace that Vermont is serious about meeting the challenge of climate change.