Home Commentary Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard:Stop Treating Renewable and Carbon-Free Synonymously

Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard:Stop Treating Renewable and Carbon-Free Synonymously

Image from Vecteezy.
By Ian Buchanan

In its March 6–19 issue, The Bridge published a commentary by Jonathan Dowds, Deputy Director of Renewable Energy Vermont, titled “Flooding and Deepening Climate Crisis Galvanize Consensus on Transformative Energy Bill.” Dowds encourages support of changes to the Renewable Energy Standard to embrace a conversion to 100% renewables and emphasizing the role of “new renewables.” 

While the time is now to act on reducing greenhouse gases, our legislators and the public deserve a more complete picture of how Vermont’s electrical sources relate to emissions, pollution, and climate change than the commentary provides. Some points of clarification to consider:

  • Being renewable does not mean an electricity source is carbon-free. If we are talking about climate, as the commentary title states, carbon-free, not renewable, is what matters. For example, 7% of Vermont’s existing electricity comes from high-pollution, high-carbon wood/biomass. However, being both local and renewable, existing biomass would continue under the proposed changes to the Renewable Energy Standard. If climate is the primary concern, why are we trying to further mandate the elimination of carbon-free power sources while allowing carbon-creating sources such as biomass to still exist? This is the dangerous double-speak of using “renewable” and “carbon-free” interchangeably.
  • Greenhouse gases do not recognize seasons, Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), or state borders. In Vermont, we need the most power in the winter and at night. Solar doesn’t perform well in these conditions and we already throttle back wind turbines that produce more power than the grid can handle. Until large-scale storage solutions exist, should further incentivizing these sources be a priority?
  • Dowds’ commentary infers that, unless the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) further mandates local renewables, future Vermont electrical demand would increase emissions equivalent to 160,000 cars by 2035. Unless we are talking about the emissions of 160,000 electric cars, this number seems to make a worst-case assumption that additional electricity generation would be from high-emission fossil fuels. 
  • The largest utility in the state, Green Mountain Power, currently shows 0% of its power coming from oil and natural gas (0.6% before RECs). The other Vermont utilities have a similar profile. Regardless of additional legislation, it seems unlikely that Vermont utilities would suddenly start prioritizing oil and natural gas generation to meet future demand. 
  • Mr. Dowds is critical of the Department of Public Service’s lack of enthusiasm to change the Renewable Energy Standard. While I don’t know the reality of why the Department of Public Service is not more engaged, the utility sector not being a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions today could be part of it; using the prior example of Green Mountain Power’s use of oil and natural gas, 100% of 0% is still 0%. The Department of Public Service may also recognize that many proposed changes would increase net metering and electric rates, which already present equity and pricing challenges for smaller utilities in particular.
Based on the above, it is reasonable to wonder whether many of the proposed changes to the Renewable Energy Standard have less to do with addressing climate and pollution challenges and more to do with ensuring that specific energy sectors have distinct competitive advantages. Some of the strategies being employed by special interest groups lobbying the Vermont legislature today seem akin to historical methods employed by the oil and tobacco industries: simplify complicated issues via double-speak, stoke fear and doubts, and only present data that supports selling more of your product. 

When talking about climate and reducing pollution, “carbon-free” is a far better goalpost than “renewable.” While our small population may entitle us to the privilege of playing power generation favorites, the other 99.8% (645,000/335,000,000 = 0.2%) of the nation’s population requires more powerful and diversified solutions. An isolationist approach to energy sends the wrong message, dismisses the necessity of energy portfolio diversification, and is disingenuous to the values and goals of actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

So, where should our action be focused? Switching to EVs and heat pumps can’t happen if the grid and housing stock aren’t ready. Electrical grid and storage improvements, building a productive and stable workforce, and preparing our housing stock to accept energy-efficient technology offer some of the best value to the climate while substantively benefiting the local economy. These should take priority over mandating energy sources with little regard to pollution, emissions, costs, or the ability to provide power at the times we need it most. 

Moving forward, if we want to talk about how energy relates to greenhouse gases and the climate, let’s do that. If we want to talk about how to subsidize Vermont companies, let’s do that. However, let’s stop language and policy that contributes to the narrative that these two things are synonymous. It is time for actions that actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution over additional rhetoric and mandated favoritism. 

Ian Buchanan is a business founder and owner who lives in East Montpelier with his family and is a candidate for the Washington Electric Co-op Board of Directors.