Paul Burns: Clean energy works for Vermont

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Paul Burns, who is the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group in Montpelier.

The global climate crisis didn’t end on Nov. 8 and it isn’t forecast to get better on Jan. 20. Donald Trump seems to be hell-bent on reversing America’s progress toward a cleaner, more prosperous energy future. The nonsense he spouts about coal being clean and climate change being a Chinese hoax aren’t just harmless tweets. This is propaganda designed to undermine the foundational principle of both science and journalism that “facts matter.”

Vermont can’t afford to follow Trump down his reality-denying rabbit hole. In fact, we need to move as quickly as possible in the opposite direction and embrace the clean energy future. Here’s why:

First, clean energy is good for Vermont’s economy.

As Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ Commission on Climate Change wrote in 2007, “The time for debate over the realities of global climate change is over. Global climate change is occurring, and every Vermonter will experience its impacts on the quality of life for which Vermont is justifiably famous. Today, our ability to ‘keep Vermont, Vermont’ is at grave risk. … If properly seized, however, climate change action can provide an unprecedented economic development opportunity for Vermont.”

Under Gov. Douglas, Vermont joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) along with seven other Northeast states – and that initiative is paying off. A recent study by the Acadia Center found that, “member states have reduced emissions 16% more than other states and seen 3.6% more economic growth.”

Instead of sitting by while Trump destroys the atmosphere, Vermont should be strengthening RGGI and expanding the carbon pricing model to transportation and heating fuels.

Second, clean energy is good for Vermont jobs.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency create jobs. Vermont had a 3.2 percent unemployment rate in November 2016, well below the national average of 4.6 percent, and much of our success in putting people back to work since the Great Recession is because of growth in clean energy.

Over 17,000 Vermonters – 6 percent of the state’s workforce – now work in renewables and efficiency, and the rate of job creation in this sector of our economy is 10 times faster than the economy as a whole. Vermont has the most clean energy jobs per capita in the nation – meaning we have the most to lose if Trump’s fossil fuel agenda is implemented here.

Vermont has the most clean energy jobs per capita in the nation – meaning we have the most to lose if Trump’s fossil fuel agenda is implemented here.


Third, clean energy makes Vermont more affordable.

Due, in part, to job growth in renewables, energy storage and efficiency — Vermont’s median household income increased 5 percent in 2016 and the poverty rate hit its lowest rate since 2008.

As Vermonters have deployed solar power and wind power and weaned our electric supply off fossil fuels, Vermont utilities have held costs down – even as rates have soared in neighboring states. Today, Vermonters enjoy some of the lowest rates in the Northeast.

This success is in no small part due to forward-thinking utility leaders like Mary Powell at Green Mountain Power, the incredible work of Efficiency Vermont, and the dedication of the state’s low-income weatherization agencies — who all work to make Vermont homes and businesses more economical and energy efficient.

Fourth, clean energy is a core Vermont strength.

When Vermont established the nation’s first energy efficiency utility in 2000 it was a cutting-edge innovation. A decade and a half later, in addition to saving Vermonters millions of dollars each year in electric costs, VEIC now exports its knowledge and expertise around the world – bringing business home to Vermont.

Today, we’re home to hundreds of clean energy enterprises. Burlington Electric has become the first utility in the nation to source 100 percent of its power from renewable sources such as Georgia Mountain Community Wind and the Winooski One dam, while rates in Burlington are lower than most utilities that still rely on fossil fuels.

Fifth, clean energy is key to “keeping Vermont, Vermont.”

Climate change is big and it’s scary. Unchecked, Vermont summers in 2100 will be like Tennessee’s today and Vermonters born in 2016 will spend more than $750,000 dealing with the costs of global warming. There will be more refugees, larger natural disasters, dirtier water and more stress on our health care system.

But addressing climate change will mean thousands of new jobs for Vermonters, a stronger, more vibrant economy, and less pollution fouling our air.

Donald Trump wants to move America backward. That’s not the direction Vermont should go.

Vermont’s elected leaders should redouble our commitment to renewable energy and energy efficiency and fight against any retreat on clean energy. That’s what VPIRG and its 40,000 members will be doing in 2017. In this Trumpian era, we remain committed to our goals and values — rooted in facts and data — and will continue to inform and mobilize citizens statewide to promote and protect the health of Vermont’s people, environment and locally based economy.

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  • After wading through everything from Trump paranoia to clean energy as a core Vermont strength, we read Paul Burns telling us that “Clean energy works for Vermont”.

    He then asks our elected leaders to redouble the commitment to renewable energy. Yet he makes no mention of the major controversies related to industrial wind and solar development, which is the real elephant in the room when it comes to implementing renewable energy policy.

    In his point #5, Burns tells us: “Clean energy is key to keeping Vermont, Vermont.”

    So…….lining our scenic roadways, covering prime agricultural land, dynamiting mountain ridges and devastating residential areas with industrial scale wind and solar developments is Mr. Burns’ idea of “keeping Vermont, Vermont.”

    This is not, “keeping Vermont, Vermont.”

    After six years of talk, it’s time to put the talking points aside and start dealing with the problems of industrial wind and solar siting and effecting real community input.

    • Adam Maxwell

      For a great many Vermonters, having a winter sports economy, maple syrup, and mostly comfortable summers is more important than having fields of solar arrays and wind on some of our ridgelines.

      And many of us – and the visitors we know – not only don’t mind the aesthetic of solar panes and wind turbines, but actually appreciate the sight of sheep grazing in a field of solar arrays or wind turbines gently spinning on a section of ridgeline. Some recent guests we entertained actually said: ‘renewable energy everywhere – of course! That’s so Vermont. You hippies with your local food and environmental activism!’

      We should continue to strengthen the process by which we ensure energy production is sited well, but please don’t push your own asthetic sensibility on the rest of us and keep us from hitting our very important greenhouse gas reduction targets.

      • Mr. Adams:

        Are you the same Maxwell Adams who recently joined the VPRIG staff and is paid to promote and defend industrial wind and development?

        If you had been in Vermont for any meaningful period of time, you would know that the assurances coming from VPRIG about people liking the aesthetics of big wind and solar are dead wrong. People are very concerned.

        Big wind has been resoundingly rejected in Vermont. Since 2005, 15 of 18 impacted towns have voted against big wind. The 15 most recent votes cast since 2007 were 100% against big wind.

        Over 150 Vermont towns have signed a resolution calling for meaningful siting standards and a real voice for them the siting approval process.

        As you must be aware, your defense of ACT 174 posted on the vtdigger was received with a wave of “Thumbs down”.

        Your assessment of where Vermonters and their communities stand on big wind and solar is far off base. It’s time for you to understand what the people really think.

      • Of course its Adam Maxwell and not Maxwell Adams.

      • Randy Jorgensen

        Adam, please tell us specifically what those targets are and how you going to hit those targets while REC’s are being sold out of state and NOT being retired in the state of VT?

  • Although renewables have an important role to play in the regional energy mix, this commentary exaggerates the current use and impact of renewable energy. Vermont is part of the New England electric grid, and we are dependent of this grid as a whole for electricity. As of 2015, electricity on the New England grid was 55% from fossil fuels and 30% from nuclear power. It is true that the region has reduced CO2 emissions, but don’t be fooled: this is primarily due to the transition from coal and oil to natural gas. This transition has also helped dramatically reduce air pollution from electricity generation.

  • Ray Mainer

    This article is full of the warm and fuzzies but real empty of facts. Perhaps the author hasn’t noticed that the sun doesn’t shine in the winter and the wind doesn’t always blow. I have yet to see a plan that lays out how to accomplish this.mRWvz

  • Kevin Jones

    I wholeheartedly agree with the need for our country and state to be clean energy leaders and that this is the right thing to do for both the planet and the economy.

    Unfortunately this commentary then goes on to ignore the highly flawed Shumlin era policies that make Vermont a renewable energy laggard rather than a leader. If you look at Vermont’s own comprehensive energy plan and greenhouse gas goals you will see that we have failed to meet these goals and that shockingly Vermont’s electric sector greenhouse gas emissions have doubled (not declined) over the last decade. A large reason for this is our state renewable energy policy which encourages the out of state sale of renewable energy for all those solar panels and wind turbines you see in the state. Thus according to the state’s own data the Vermont energy mix is 0% wind and barely above 0% solar. We can perhaps fool ourselves as Trump proves but we can’t fool mother nature.

    • Kevin, your comment highlights is why it is important to look at renewable energy and CO2 emissions regionally instead of just focusing on Vermont. If the Renewable Energy Credits (RECS) are sold to utilities in southern New England, this is just a business transaction and does not affect the overall energy mix in New England. Vermont can do its part with in-state renewable energy generate and take advantage of RECs, and still take seriously the impacts of renewable energy by addressing this with good siting standards and more local control.

      • Kevin Jones

        Looking at the policy regionally similarly suggests Vermont is a renewable energy laggard. While MA and CT are leading Vermont has not been adding additional renewables to the mix. How can Vermonts electric sector GHG emissions double and Vermonters claim that regionally this is progress. Vermont’s policies have been flawed for the last 6 years and under the new RPS for wind, biomass and solar over 5 MW it will continue to facilitate out of state sale of RECs.

        • Matt Davis

          VT is a renewable energy laggard because townspeople have been intentionally provided misleading information regarding RE projects. The Stile Brook project is a classic example….

          Your statement that: “A large reason for this is our state renewable energy policy which encourages the out of state sale of renewable energy for all those solar panels and wind turbines you see in the state.” is a good example of misleading information. VT is an importer of electricity so the suggestion that RE projects’ power is being sold out of state is totally false.

  • Ned Farquhar

    This commentary makes a lot of sense. Working with other northeastern states, we can affordably and predictably push down carbon emissions at a regional level through an existing, effective mechanism – RGGI. Solar arrays and a few more wind turbines will not drive tourists away. They will produce income for Vermonters while increasing our energy reslience. And as we displace fossil fuels now used for heating and transportation, we will capture dollars that used to escape into the world and national petro-economy. This is a practical, sensible solution.

    • stephen whitaker

      Ned writes:
      ” Solar arrays and a few more wind turbines will not drive tourists away. ”

      But it appears to be OK if the turbine noise drives multi-generation Vermont families out of their homes, off of their lands, fractures community spirit, pits neighbors who value health and safety over 30 year idealistic goals, against neighbors not willing to sacrifice sleep and quiet solitude in nature.

      We need to recognize that across the planet, the large industrial scale turbines are creating low frequency infrasound effects yet to be fully understood, that appear to be causing people to be feeling ill in so many ways. Seasick In The Mountains!

      Why should we turn a public safety imperative, a peace and quiet tradition and priority on its head for this self-righteous goal before we fully understand the health impacts on those living here today, in favor of those yet to be born?

      Lets get real.

  • John McClaughry

    “Clean energy makes Vermont more affordable.” Of course! Everybody knows that subsidized 12 c/kwhr electricity is more affordable than unsubsidized 7 c/kwhr!
    “Clean energy is key to ‘keeping Vermont, Vermont.’’ Of course! Without more clean energy, our ridgelines would be bare and boring.
    “Our goals and values (are) rooted in facts and data.” Of course! We already know exactly what will happen from now to 2100, because a huge new supercomputer Global Climate Model projection will tell us the truth!” No, wait, that hasn’t worked out so well, but trust us. All we need is a $500 million carbon tax.

  • Chris Kayes

    Another article based on government funded climate hysteria.
    The “facts” are that the future climate “projections” are wrong and that absolutely none of the prognostications, like sea level rise, the end of snow fall, polar bear extinction, etc, etc have come to pas. None. Zilch. Nada. Meanwhile the working poor are stuck with ever increasing energy costs.

    Work on cleaning up the environment, the climate will do whatever it wants, with or without us.

  • walter moses

    A better lead in to this post, ” Clean energy works for Paul Burns and certain politicians”.