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Op-ed by Jonathan Dowds: Vermont (and Texas?) Reaping the Benefits of Yesterday’s Forward-Looking Energy Policies

by | Jul 18, 2022

New Hampshire households are about to get hit hard, really hard, by rates hikes that will increase electricity bills by more than $70 a month. These unprecedented rate hikes reflect surging natural gas prices and New Hampshire’s ill-fated decision to tie its electricity prices to volatile fossil fuels. While New Hampshire’s rate hikes are particularly dramatic, the state is far from alone – rates are up 8% nationally and 15% in Florida, Illinois, and New York. Fortunately, Vermont’s forward-thinking energy policies – most notably our decisions to stick with a regulated utility model and invest in renewables – are protecting Vermonters from similar rate increases, at least in the short term.

As we plan for a future where more and more of our cars and home heating are electrified, it is helpful to look at why electric bills are going haywire. New Hampshire’s rate increases reflect the price of natural gas which fuels more than half of the region’s power generation. While Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine is the current and most dramatic event to spike natural gas prices, it’s just the latest in a long line of geopolitical, weather, and economic events contributing to oil and gas price volatility. Though Vermont’s utilities also purchase power from the New England grid, much of the state’s electricity comes from longer-term contracts with renewable and nuclear facilities insulating Vermont from severe price spikes.

As climate change upends our weather patterns and international conflicts proliferate, relying on sustained, low prices for fossil fuels is a sucker’s bet. From this vantage point, it is easy to see what we need to do now to protect ourselves going forward. It’s time to double down on renewable energy, especially renewable energy that we generate right here in Vermont. Seriously investing in renewables, with their near-zero generating costs, is the key to keeping our electric bills down in the future.

Once upon a time, renewables were mainly an “eat your vegetables” solution to climate change – something that we knew we had to do but weren’t always excited about. Change can be hard, wind turbines and solar panels were expensive, and utilities were worried about how to manage the variable power output that wind and solar produce. But increasingly, renewables are paying dividends not just in terms of how they protect the climate – reason enough to eat our vegetables – but also in terms of price and reliability. On price alone, new wind and solar outperform coal and are competitive with natural gas. Newer generation panels and turbines are more efficient than ever at capturing energy from the wind and the sun. Better weather forecasting, expanding energy storage, and innovative solutions for shifting electricity demand to times with excess generation are making it easier and easier to integrate renewables into the grid. In Texas, hardly a state known for its climate-friendly outlook, renewable energy is being credited with keeping the grid operating while Texans crank up the air conditioning to cope with record-breaking early heat brought on by climate change. Recently, wind and solar produced 40% of the electricity Texas used during periods of peak demand. (Oh, and those massive power outages in Texas last winter that the fossil fuel industry and their allies were so eager to blame on wind power – turns out those were actually caused by natural gas plants and pipelines freezing up!) Rather than simply being the best option to combat climate change, renewables are increasingly the best option, period – including for keeping rates down and the grid operating.

To ensure that Vermonters continue to reap the benefits of renewables, we should be updating our energy laws to require utilities to purchase 100% renewable energy and at least double our goals for in-state renewable generation, to 20% or more by 2030. Bringing more renewable energy to Vermont means more on-site solar installations – on rooftops, over parking lots, or mounted in backyards. It means community solar arrays so that renters and low-income Vermonters can access renewable energy, and investing in storage. It means getting back to building responsibly-sited wind projects in Vermont. Building renewable facilities in Vermont means that we can take control of the environmental impacts of the energy that we use rather than asking others to bear those burdens for us. Looking back, it is clear that Vermont’s policymakers had the foresight to protect Vermonters from the rate turbulence that is rocking New Hampshire and much of the rest of the country.  Let’s exercise that foresight again by acting today to ensure that Vermont’s future is renewable.

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