Vermont lawmakers want to require utilities to source 100% renewable electricity by 2030
Vermont lawmakers will take up their next big piece of climate legislation next year in the form of a bill that would require electric utilities to get more of their power from renewable sources.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers overrode Gov. Phil Scott’s veto to pass a clean heat standard that supporters say will reduce carbon emissions in the heating sector. When lawmakers reconvene in January, they’ll take up legislation that seeks to decarbonize the state’s electric grid.
As the state and federal government adopt policies and incentives to encourage more people to purchase electric vehicles and install cold-climate heat pumps, according to Addison County Sen. Chris Bray, the demands on Vermont’s grid are forecast to rise in the coming years.
“But those two initiatives only are meaningful if the electricity you put into heat pump or into your car is clean, so that’s why it’s important to have a clean grid,” said Bray, who serves as the Democratic chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.
Lawmakers plan to clean up the state’s grid by updating a 2015 law that requires utilities to derive 75% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2032. Bray told Vermont Public that he wants to use legislation in 2024 to move up the timeline to 2030, and increase the clean-energy mandate to 100%.
The so-called “Renewable Energy Standard” has seen the percentage of clean energy in utilities’ overall power portfolios climb to 65% — the highest in the nation, according to Bray.
“We’re in a good position,” Bray said. “And what we’re looking forward to doing is picking up the pace for cleaning the grid.”
Lawmakers last session created a special panel – called the Renewable Energy Standard Reform Working Group – to draft legislation in advance of the 2024 session. Along with legislators, it includes representatives from utilities, energy developers, manufacturers and environmental watchdogs.
Bray said there’s general consensus on setting the 100% by 2030 goal. Different constituencies are split, however, on how to achieve the target.
We’re in a good position. And what we’re looking forward to doing is picking up the pace for cleaning the grid.Addison County Sen. Chris Bray
Bill Driscoll, vice-president of Associated Industries of Vermont, told Vermont Public that his trade association supports the transition to a clean grid. But he said manufacturers are especially vulnerable to increases in energy costs. And he said minimizing upward pressure on rates will require a Renewable Energy Standard that gives utilities wide latitude in where they source their clean power.
“Whether or to what extent there’s a negative impact on rates, in terms of driving up the cost or even jeopardizing reliability, it really depends on the details,” Driscoll said.
Driscoll said it’s important for lawmakers to allow utilities to buy their power from existing renewable energy sources, both in Vermont and out of state, to satisfy their statutory requirements.
“If you allow greater flexibility in terms of technologies and locations and scale for the utilities to design what best meets the overall requirements, but also addresses reliability and affordability, that’s one way to go, and that’s how we would prefer this conversation to go,” he said. “The more you constrain that choice … you’re driving toward potentially more expensive and less reliable sources.”
Peter Sterling, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, an association that represents in-state power developers, said any plan that doesn’t compel utilities to get more power from new green-energy sources will prevent the legislation from achieving its intent.
“If Vermont wants to be serious about doing its part to fight climate change … the key component of any RES proposal will be bringing new renewables online,” Sterling said. “If we just go back to existing resources, that actually doesn’t displace the … natural gas plants that operate in Massachusetts, Connecticut and elsewhere in New England that help supply our region power.”
The existing Renewable Energy Standard requires utilities to get 10% of their clean power from in-state developers. Sterling said REV wants lawmakers to increase that number as well.
Sterling said opponents of the original Renewable Energy Standard warned back in 2015 that the initiative would result in rate hikes. Vermonters, however, now have the second-lowest electricity rates in New England.
Driscoll said Vermont’s national standing when it comes to electricity costs is far less favorable. And he said manufacturers here are competing with businesses in states that have much lower energy costs.
If Vermont wants to be serious about doing its part to fight climate change … the key component of any RES proposal will be bringing new renewables online.Peter Sterling, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont
Sterling said the cost of a kilowatt hour isn’t the only metric on which policymakers in Vermont should focus, because those rates don’t include what he calls the “social cost of carbon.”
“Meaning when you generate some solar power, you are not emitting fossil fuels, and that has many other societal benefits worth many, many millions of dollars that are not accounted for just in terms of rate pressure,” he said.
Many Vermonters will be watching the Legislature’s work closely next year. At a meeting of the Renewable Energy Standard Reform Working Group this week, nearly a dozen Vermonters testified before the panel.
Kelly Wantuch, a Northfield resident with a 2-year-old child and another due in March, said she wants to “defend the chance for my children to have a place they can live and thrive in.”
“Warmer earth temperatures will cause more extreme weather events, such as the recent floods we saw in July and last year’s drought conditions,” she said.
Wantuch said an updated Renewable Energy Standard will advance the state’s climate goals, but only if it prioritizes the development of new energy sources, specifically “solar and wind.”
“I want us to prioritize electricity sources that don’t impact our local food systems, that don’t harm other communities, and that actually reduce our carbon emissions,” she told the panel.
The Renewable Energy Standard Reform Working Group is required to deliver draft legislation, and a report on its findings, to the Legislature by Dec. 1.
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