Home Commentary Flooding and Deepening Climate Crisis Galvanize Consensus on Transformative Energy Bill 

Flooding and Deepening Climate Crisis Galvanize Consensus on Transformative Energy Bill 

Photo by John Lazenby.
by Jonathan Dowds

After a year of record-breakingly expensive winter storms and devastating flooding that crystalized just how much Vermont is already suffering from the climate crisis, Vermont environmentalists, utilities, and political leaders have been sitting down together to hammer out an agreement on a Renewable Energy Standard reform bill that is both pragmatic and visionary. Under the bill’s provisions, Vermont would get 100% of its power from renewable sources by 2035, sooner than any New England state outside of Rhode Island.

Crucially, this would include getting 35%-40% of our power from new renewable sources. This is crucial because more renewable energy is urgently needed to phase out power generation from our region’s many remaining natural gas plants even as our demand for electricity grows. By 2035, Vermont’s utilities would be purchasing four times more new renewable energy than they would under the status quo. And that’s a big deal from a climate perspective — the equivalent of taking 160,000 vehicles off the road.

Renewable Energy Vermont, where I work, and a broad coalition of environmental and social justice organizations including VPIRG, VNRC, 350VT, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility have been making the case for a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy that emphasizes the role of new renewables.  House Speaker Jill Krowinski’s leadership helped put updating the Renewable Energy Standard front and center. 

Vermont’s utilities are highly responsive to their ratepayers and wary of increasing rates unnecessarily and they embraced many of the goals that the House Environment & Energy Committee advocated for. The result was a consensus proposal that quadruples the amount of new renewable energy we use and that allows utilities to be confident that they can keep the lights on and rates affordable for their customers. It’s not as ambitious as our initial proposal but is a very good deal.

Absent from these efforts in a meaningful way? The Scott administration, which missed another opportunity to engage productively on climate issues in favor of fear mongering on cost. Scott’s Department of Public Service (DPS) recently suggested that the transformative bill would cost a billion dollars over 10 years — a number that is two to three times what the bill will likely cost.

Despite its technical expertise, DPS failed to provide a vision of how we can take advantage of rapidly growing load flexibility, improving storage technologies, and other advances to achieve these goals at the lowest cost. For example, VELCO, the entity that manages the state’s transmission system, estimated that if we are strategic about where we build it, we could get to 85% of the in-state solar capacity needed under the bill (about 1000 MW) without hitting any transmission constraints at all. Thereafter, more solar would necessitate either building new transmission capacity (some of which will be required to support the transition to EVs and head pumps) or a combination of incentivizing electricity use when renewable generation is highest — something that we definitely should be moving towards — and reducing solar output during select periods when we are producing more energy than we can use or safely export to our neighbors. 

Instead of providing a roadmap on how Vermont could most cost-effectively balance these strategies, the Department started with VELCO’s worst-case, transmission-only scenario to assign the RES bill responsibility for $500 million in transmission upgrades. DPS added on another $500 million in additional power purchase costs, even though applying their own model to the requirements of the bill puts the number at closer to $350 million. The administration seemed to be answering the question, “What is the cost of reforming the Renewable Energy Standard if we do it in the least thoughtful way possible?” rather than, “How do we update the Renewable Energy Standard in the way that provides the greatest benefit to Vermont?”

Despite the lack of administration support, the bill is moving forward. As it should. It is not perfect — no bill is — but it is a significant step in the right direction. 

A few critical issues will need to be picked up in the next legislative session, designing the right procurement programs that spur development and provide equitable access to renewables, and permitting reforms to make the process more straightforward and predictable. But the update to the Renewable Energy Standard is the first step and sets us on the trajectory for success.  

Jonathan Dowds is the Deputy Director of Renewable Energy Vermont. 

The material presented here represents the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of The Bridge. Commentaries may be submitted to editor@montpelierbridge.com. Preference is given to submissions by those who live in central Vermont. Submissions are encouraged to be 500 to 750 words in length.