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OPINION: The Missing “Why” in Vermont’s Energy Transition


by Brian Shupe, Waitsfield

Vermonters use a lot of energy to heat our homes, power our lives and transport us where we need to go.

Virtually all of the energy we use to drive our cars, trucks and buses is imported into the state, as is the majority of the energy we use to heat our homes and businesses. And we remain reliant on other states and nations to generate the electric power we need to light our homes, charge our computers and run our many appliances.

The reality is, Vermonters have not had to think about — or take responsibility for — generating the energy that makes our energy-intensive society work. But that’s changing, for a lot of reasons.

More and more coal and nuclear power plants are coming off line each year. They are too dirty, too expensive and too dangerous to continue operating. Combine that with the glut of cheap natural gas and the growing affordability and efficiency of renewable energy technology and the result is an energy transformation.

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In Vermont it is resulting in more clean energy resources being deployed across the state, leading to significant economic development and a much cleaner electric portfolio that’s recognizing and responding to the climate crisis and greater energy independence.

It’s also come with controversy as communities adjust to seeing more solar panels pop up on the landscape. Unfortunately, controversy has distracted attention from the reason why this transition is happening.

We have a growing obligation to take more responsibility for how that energy is generated, rather than simply enjoying the benefits. And climate change is already costing the nation billions in response to increased droughts, floods, wildfires and a rising sea.

How Vermont embraces this new energy transition matters. A lot. That’s why organizations have worked with communities across Vermont to implement conservation and efficiency programs, undertake projects that give people transportation choices and advance community-owned renewable energy.

We have also worked from the local level to the highest levels of government to promote and craft plans that will help achieve the most strategic, well-supported approaches to transitioning off of fossil fuels. We believe strongly that, to succeed, Vermonters must be actively engaged in our energy transition.

And, it is why we are optimistic about the new, forward-looking framework enacted by the Legislature last session — Act 174 — designed to empower communities and regions who undertake comprehensive energy planning to exercise a greater role in how energy generation is sited.

Act 174 requires regions to consider how they will contribute to meeting heating, transportation and electrical needs. And it enables communities (but does not require them) to do the same, identifying solutions they think will work best in the context of their own goals and values. Communities and regions that demonstrate their planned participation in this energy shift can receive a determination by the Public Service Department that gives deference to their plans in proceeding on energy projects before the Public Service Board.

How can we incentivize projects on the already-built landscape that, in many instances, are more expensive than the same facility built in an open field? How can we site more distributed, renewable generation in locations that protect natural resources, communities and people, while at the same time remaining affordable?

The State needs to balance multiple goals in this energy transition. There are and will be challenges and tradeoffs. Act 174 creates a framework that will help communities with their own energy vision. But it’s important to remember as this new planning framework rolls out some of the big reasons behind it.

We have a responsibility and an opportunity to meet far more of our energy needs through resources carefully deployed in our own backyards. Act 174 creates a way to articulate how that happens. The oft-missing why is an essential part of the equation, however, that I hope will inspire more people to participate in this new planning process and come to the table willing to be part of the solution.

The author is the executive director of Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Editor’s Note — this was edited for length