James Dumont: Real progress can be made without the clean heat standard

This commentary is by James A. Dumont, an attorney in Bristol who represents citizens and public interest organizations in energy and environmental matters.

The clean heat standard, like many bold initiatives, had some great strengths and some potentially severe shortcomings. The failure to override the governor’s veto now makes it irrelevant to ask: What if it had been enacted?

The question now is what we all — hopefully including the governor — can agree on that will move Vermont forward. 

  • The first priority must be to ensure that whatever we do does not cast an oppressive burden on those Vermonters who can least afford it. 

There are some obvious steps that can be taken, that have not been taken, that can accomplish this. The state is moving to electrify heating and transportation, which is good, but this will cause both electric rates and electric usage to increase. 

Low- and moderate-income Vermonters should not be paying higher rates to pay for higher-income Vermonters to install solar and battery storage, for repeal of the use of renewable energy credits to greenwash the real impacts of our electric sources, or for upgrades to our electric grid to accommodate more genuinely renewable power. 

There is an existing low-income electric rate assistance program but it is woefully inadequate. It provides a small subsidy for a very small number of Vermonters. It must be upgraded to protect every ratepayer whose household income is below 60% of the state median income, and it must hold their rates at present levels.

And weatherizing the homes of every Vermonter below 60% of median income (or a similar metric), with state assistance, must occur ahead of every other weatherization effort. 

  • The second priority must be to clean up the electric grid.

Many Vermonters are unaware that Hydro-Quebec is the mainstay of Vermont’s supposedly clean grid, and HQ flunks the standards for clean power set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The reasons are that its vast reservoirs release large quantities of methane (which is far more destructive of our climate than carbon — so beware when your utility claims its electricity is “carbon-free”), and that use of Hydro-Quebec to offset fossil fuel sources fails the IPCC standards for “additionality,” because doing so uses a preexisting source that was already being used to serve other customers. (Not to mention the continuing destruction of Indigenous lands.) 

Once you strip away the Hydro-Quebec façade, Vermont’s electric grid is dirty. And, because of the shell game that is our renewable energy credits trading system, much of the genuinely clean power generated in Vermont is used by out-of-state utilities to meet their state’s renewable energy standards, which means it does nothing to reduce Vermont consumers’ use of the dirty ISO-NE grid mix. 

Heating your home with a heat pump or running your car on electricity is better than heating your home with oil or natural gas or running your car on gasoline, for sure, but without honest accounting of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by our existing electric mix, consumers and the state Public Utility Commission won’t be making the decisions we must make about how to change the way we power that grid. 

  • The third priority must be to eliminate the hurdles to developing genuinely renewable energy. 

Let’s start with publicly owned renewable projects that commit not to sell their renewable energy credits — so that these projects provide real “additionality” rather than being used to reduce Green Mountain Power’s or a Massachusetts utility’s renewable power obligations. For these and only these projects, regulatory review should be limited to public health and safety, forest, wetland and wildlife habitat protection, stormwater runoff, and ability to connect to the grid; the cost and delay involved in meeting aesthetics objections (other than locally determined screening standards) is no longer justifiable. 

If a town selectboard or a city council decides to construct a solar project to provide clean energy, we have to trust the judgment of elected officials on this issue. 

In New Hampshire, the Legislature has created a program that subsidizes low-income, community-owned projects, such as mobile home parks, to make up the difference between the market rate for wholesale power and the rate necessary to pay for constructing solar. The subsidy program makes it possible for low-income consumers to generate solar power, and unnecessary for them to sell their renewable energy credits — which means the clean power they generate and use is really “additional” and is not being used by in-state or out-of-state utilities to reduce their own clean power obligations.

If New Hampshire can do it, Vermont can do it. And we should do it for every publicly owned or nonprofit-owned project. 

These are reforms that focus on fairness, do not require new or increased regulation of businesses or homeowners, and will allow Vermont to make progress in slowing climate change. 

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