The latest scientific polling continues to show Vermonters’ strong support for meeting our energy needs through more clean, local, renewable energy resources. Each year, the Legislature has taken steps to respond to this interest – and planetary imperative – by crafting policies that balance cost, community and climate-related goals. With the 2015-2016 legislative biennium soon drawing to a close, here’s a quick update on the bigger energy-related issues under consideration:
Vermont’s commitment to greater energy independence has resulted in a fairly swift deployment of renewable resources across the state, and far more solar installations in particular. Many homeowners, businesses, schools and municipalities are now enjoying more stable, affordable and clean energy as a result. The transition has not been met without controversy, however, as more solar projects dot rooflines, roadways, fields and forest perimeters.
In response to communities seeking more of a voice in how energy projects are deployed, and in an effort to set the stage for more strategic development of a distributed, 21st-century grid, the Senate recently passed S.230 – “An act relating to improving the siting of energy projects.”
Some of the core provisions of the Senate-passed bill include:
- The creation of a process for enhanced regional and municipal energy planning.
Regions and municipalities would receive “substantial deference” in regulatory decisions around proposed energy projects, once they demonstrate through a state certification process how their plan will help meet the state’s statutory greenhouse gas emissions and Comprehensive Energy Plan goals.
- Incentives for renewable energy development in preferred locations, such as parking lots and landfills, as well as places designated by the community in its duly adopted municipal plan.
- A new Public Assistance Officer at the state Public Service Board to help citizens better access information and navigate the regulatory process.
There is strong support for the intention of these provisions, and some others, including making it easier and more affordable to harness existing (but currently defunct) hydro plants. To many clean energy advocates, however, the Senate’s version contains some serious flaws, such as a provision that gives communities immediate deference to their local plans without first ensuring they align with state statutory and energy goals. The bill is now under consideration in the House, where it will likely change significantly – and its future is uncertain.
In late March, the Vermont House reauthorized and passed a modest increase – ¼ percent – to the Fuel Gross Receipts Tax, which funds low-income weatherization programs. A greater commitment to these programs has been long needed, since funding has declined significantly in recent years, resulting in longer waiting lists for low-income Vermonters who want to save energy and money. The Senate will soon take action and, if they support the increase (which applies to all covered fuels except electricity) it will be the first increase in the GRT since it was initially instituted in 1990.
Pricing Carbon Pollution
In recent weeks, the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee has heard from businesses, low-income advocates, state officials, faith leaders, a fuel dealer, and others about the urgent need to respond to climate change and about a carbon pollution tax in particular. This climate policy is embraced by many leading economists, ExxonMobil, President Obama, and many others. It’s also an approach many nations and provinces have already harnessed to successfully and affordably help people reduce their consumption of fossil fuels.
Both the recent Vermont Council on Rural Development’s “Climate Change Economy Council” and the 2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan highlighted carbon pricing as a key climate solution Vermont should examine. A diverse coalition called Energy Independent Vermont has been pressing for an equitable, phased-in state-based carbon pollution tax paired with investments in programs to help Vermonters transition off fossil fuels and cuts to other taxes Vermonters are currently paying.
An economy-wide policy like a price on carbon is needed, because, despite Vermont’s efforts to date to help people and businesses transition to cleaner, more affordable energy, we are falling far short of our long-term state energy goals. For example, when fully implemented, the ambitious Renewable Energy Standard passed last year, would result in reducing only one quarter of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s clear we need to do more.
While no vote on carbon pricing will take place this year, there is growing interest in examining how this policy could work in Vermont in a way that would reduce other taxes, grow jobs and the state’s economy, protect low-income Vermonters and serve as the single most powerful and cost-effective policy to reduce Vermont’s polluting carbon emissions.
There is a robust conversation happening at the local level all the way up to Governor Shumlin calling for the state to divest its investments in fossil fuels. The Vermont House of Representatives passed a resolution and over half of the Vermont Senate signed a letter, both calling for Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce and the Vermont Pension Investment Committee to explore fossil fuel divestment. While action has shifted from the legislature to the board that overseas the pension funds (the Vermont Pension Investment Committee), lawmakers and divestment advocates, including many state pension holders themselves, are engaging in a process underway to explore this opportunity fully and fairly.
The legislative landscape on energy issues changes almost daily, so stay tuned via www.vnrc.org for the latest updates. Strong, consistent public support is needed to ensure Vermont continues to move policies that support a 21st-century clean energy economy. Your legislators, as well candidates for the legislature and governor, must hear early and often about the need for greater commitment to efficiency, renewable energy and bold climate action.