Guest Column: Vermont’s electricity isn’t so green

By Peter Sterling

Vermont’s electric sector is estimated to contribute only 2 percent of our climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions — seemingly insignificant compared to the whopping 74 percent of emissions coming from our transportation sector and from the energy we use to heat and cool our homes and businesses. 

But this 2 percent figure is quite deceptive and masks the level of pollution that comes from our electricity, especially during the winter when Vermonters are quite likely using energy from fossil fuels like natural gas and, increasingly, oil and coal. 

After cold snaps during the winter of 2017/2018 drove up the price of natural gas used for heating, winter reliability rules were enacted New England-wide so that electric power plants could switch quickly from gas to oil when the temperature dropped and more natural gas was needed for heating and less was available to run power plants. 

And that is why, on average, during the run of cold weather this past January, roughly 13 percent of the energy mix Vermont purchased from the New England electric grid was fueled by burning oil and coal. 

So what can be done to reduce the amount of coal, oil and natural gas used to generate the electricity we rely on for our everyday lives? For starters, the cleanest energy source is the one not used — meaning by weatherizing our homes and putting in efficient heating systems powered by renewables, we can avoid using dirty power that accelerates the climate crisis. 

But importantly, as Vermont works to move away from fossil fuels and toward electricity to power our cars and trucks and to heat our homes, we must ensure this electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar. Current law in Vermont calls for 10 percent of all electricity to be generated from in-state renewables by 2032. When the law was created in 2017, this seemed like a reasonable goal to combat climate change. 

But the climate change crisis is accelerating faster than most scientists had anticipated, so our laws must evolve too. The Vermont Legislature must act by doubling or even tripling the amount of renewable energy Vermont generates within our borders. 

If we don’t act soon, all of the good work we are doing to “electrify everything” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be simply replacing the fossil fuels we now use for home heating and running our vehicles with fossil fuels used to power electric power plants.

Fortunately, important components of the solution are already in place. Vermont has a vibrant clean energy industry, which, though declining in recent years, employed just over 19,000 Vermonters in 2017 representing just over 6 percent of the state’s workforce. And, we already have a cost-effective statewide program called net metering in place to help make installing solar power more affordable for Vermonters. 

Renewable Energy Vermont commissioned a study on the New England-wide impacts of solar programs like net metering. The study examined data from 2014-2019 collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and found that solar power helped avoid 4.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and avoided millions of pounds of pollutants proven to have negative impacts on human health, contributing $87 million in public health benefits and another $515 million in climate benefits — in addition to providing a clean and renewable source of electricity for tens of thousands of people region-wide.

While the amount of solar power we produce grows every year, deploying wind power has lagged well behind, held back by an unsupportive governor, a small but vocal group of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) activists and a regulatory process with the strictest wind sound rules in the nation. Since wind and solar output tend to peak at night and day respectively, they are highly complementary, clean energy resources. Finding a way to bring wind power back to Vermont will be essential to displacing fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Thanks to the Legislature’s override of Gov. Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act, Vermont is undertaking some bold steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. But renewed support for wind and solar energy by our state government is critical to ensure the electricity we are using to heat and cool our homes and power our cars and trucks doesn’t come from fossil fuels, but clean, reliable and affordable renewable energy that is accessible to all Vermonters. 

Peter Sterling is the interim executive director at Renewable Energy Vermont, the trade association representing Vermont’s renewable energy industries.