Springer: Embrace local, renewable fuels and technologies through the Clean Heat Standard

by Darren Springer, General Manager, Burlington Electric Department At key moments in Vermont’s history when we’ve been on the cusp of advancing critical renewable energy technologies and policies, there have always been tensions between the desire to make positive change, and the fears raised by critics who support the status quo.

For example, when Burlington Electric was building the renewable McNeil Generating Station in the 1980’s to replace the Moran coal plant, there were posters warning that there would be no more trees once the new plant was operating.

Instead, even as McNeil provides renewable energy from local wood that reduces New England’s reliance on fossil fuels, Vermont has maintained its forest cover through sustainable harvesting. The fears were not realized, and McNeil is now a critical resource for the region.

At another moment, in 2015, Vermont was considering a bold new policy called the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) to require more renewable electricity and, through its novel Tier 3, support innovative utility programs that help customers reduce fossil fuel use in the heating and transportation sectors.

Critics at the time warned that it would be too costly, and that Vermonters would not want to participate in these new programs.

Those concerns were ultimately unfounded. Instead, as of 2020 (the most recent year for which we have data), every Vermont utility met or exceeded the RES standards, and Vermont continues to have the second-lowest electric rates of the six-state New England region.

The RES is credited with helping reduce Vermont’s pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour to 23.8 as of 2020, compared to 633 pounds per megawatt hour across New England.

Vermont now has one of the cleanest electricity portfolios, and through the RES Tier 3 program utilities are offering programs to put that clean energy to good use by incentivizing electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, electric buses, cold-climate heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps, electric lawn equipment, and much more.

The Department of Public Service projects that because of the RES, by 2030, Vermont will consume between 17-21% less total fossil fuel use across all energy sectors (compared to a baseline scenario), and will reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions up to 1,230,000 tons.

Today we have another opportunity to make progress toward meeting Vermont’s climate goals and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, and that opportunity is the proposed Clean Heat Standard.

This new policy proposal was backed by the Vermont Climate Council and is under consideration in the Vermont Legislature.

The Clean Heat Standard would provide a framework for heating fuel companies to be innovative and reduce emissions, just as the RES provided a similar framework for our electric utilities.

Importantly, just like the RES, the proposed Clean Heat Standard is technology and fuel neutral. It supports deployment of all fuels and technologies that can help with emissions reductions, letting heating fuel customers determine what works best for them based on their individual circumstances.

The Clean Heat Standard is market-based and designed to cost-effectively accelerate a market transition that is already underway.

Today there are forward-looking heating fuel providers offering weatherization services, wood pellets and renewable fuels, heat pump installations, and many other products that would be incentivized under the Clean Heat Standard.

The Clean Heat Standard would provide access to these technologies and fuels for more Vermonters and provides a viable business model for heating fuel companies in the clean energy future Vermonters have indicated time and again that we want for our state.

But the costs and benefits cannot be measured in dollars and cents alone. Our values are at stake.

Not only is this a critical moment in terms of meeting Vermont’s climate goals, it is an important moment to stand up for freedom and democracy, given the heart-breaking situation in Ukraine.

A European Finance Minister recently said that renewable energy is the “energy of freedom”, and I agree. So long as oil is a global commodity and its price can be determined by nations whose actions are contrary to our values, there is no way to declare energy independence while still relying on oil to fuel our vehicles and heat our homes and businesses.

However, by driving an electric vehicle, or heating with renewable energy – whether that is wood pellets, or cold-climate heat pumps, or farm methane or biodiesel – we can stop sending our hard-earned dollars out of state to buy oil.

We can take an important step away from the oil dependence that empowers anti-democratic authoritarians and turn toward locally-available renewable “freedom” energy instead.

It takes courage to embrace change, and to overcome the fears that critics will raise with new ideas whose time has come. Vermont has shown in the past that we have the collective courage to make change to our energy system.

We showed it in enacting the RES, including the Tier 3 program that demonstrated a new utility business model was possible.

Let’s choose progress over fear again, and better align our energy policy with our values, by passing a Clean Heat Standard and giving more Vermonters the chance to heat with affordable, local, renewable, and clean sources of energy.