Public Power in the Public Interest

Coop CurrentsCoop News

By Louis Porter, General Manager

Vermont’s power system is the cleanest in the country, from a carbon perspective. Since Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard took effect in 2016, utilities have made enormous progress reducing emissions. 

Public power utilities make sure our power purchases are both environmentally and financially sustainable. Beyond provision of power, our mission includes community and environmental impact. Today, three Vermont public power utilities are 100% renewably powered, including Washington Electric Cooperative.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t more for utilities to do, but it does mean our climate change mitigation efforts should be focused on helping Vermonters transition to using our quite clean electric supply to replace the fossil fuels that now power their transportation and heating. Those two sectors make up the bulk of our state’s carbon emissions, by far.

My fellow public power leaders and I are concerned that recent proposals to overhaul the Renewable Energy Standard without review from the Public Utility Commission (PUC) could have the effect of breaking what didn’t need fixing – raising the costs of our very clean energy, which de-incentivizes electric cars, heat pumps, and those changes that cut emissions in our highest polluting sectors. 

The heads of the largest public power organizations in Vermont have talked in recent months about how we can help lower the amount of carbon emissions that Vermonters produce as they live and work. It became clear there is a significant lack of knowledge about the gains made by the electricity sector in Vermont. We got together to write the following opinion piece, in order to make that point.

When Renewable Energy Regulations Work

By Darren Springer, general manager, Burlington Electric Department; Rebecca Towne, CEO, Vermont Electric Cooperative; Ken Nolan, general manager, Vermont Public Power Supply Authority; and Louis Porter, general manager, Washington Electric Cooperative.

The international news on the climate is grim, and it can be hard to maintain hope that humans will act swiftly or with enough resolve to prevent the worst effects and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the levels required by science.

But Vermonters can be proud of what has been accomplished by our state’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES). This regulation has increased use of renewable energy, lowered greenhouse gas production in our state, and supported the move towards heat pumps and electric vehicles. 

The RES, passed in 2015 and first implemented in 2017, requires utilities to provide 75% renewable electricity by 2032, with a portion coming from new small-scale renewable generators, like rooftop solar. All Vermont electric utilities comply with the RES and as of 2021 on a statewide basis, electricity is already 71% renewable and 89% carbon free. Some electric utilities in Vermont are already 100 percent renewable or carbon free, and others have made that commitment. 

The RES is a success story for Vermont GHG emissions reductions and is a large reason why electricity only accounts for 2% of Vermont’s GHG emissions. The Energy Action Network’s 2022 Annual Progress Report noted “a drop of more than 80%—from 0.81 to 0.13 MM tons—in Vermont’s electricity sector GHG emissions between 2016 and 2019.” This is equivalent to removing over 146,000 gasoline powered vehicles from the road for a year. It further stated that “Vermont now has the least carbon intensive electricity portfolio … in the U.S.”

The overwhelming majority of Vermont’s GHG emissions comes from transportation and heating. Driving gas-powered vehicles and other fossil fuel dependent transportation contributes to 40% of Vermont’s GHG emissions, while warming our buildings with oil, propane, and other carbon emitting sources makes up about 34% of the state’s emissions. Vermont’s low carbon electricity is doubly beneficial as Vermonters transition to electric vehicles and heat pumps, replacing fossil fuel combustion with much cleaner electricity. The 2023 Annual Report from the Vermont Public Service Department (PSD)  states, “across all energy using sectors, the PSD estimates that by 2031, on an annual basis, Vermont will consume around 16% less fossil-based energy than it does today in the baseline load forecast scenario, or approximately 20% less in the high forecast scenario, as a direct result of RES.” The RES is Vermont’s most effective climate policy to date.

The Vermont Climate Council reviewed Vermont’s policies and issued the Vermont Climate Action Plan, which recognizes Vermont’s strong progress on renewable electricity. It states in the Electricity Pathways section that “The electric sector has made great strides in both reducing emissions from electricity purchases and use, and in reducing overall demand through efficiency programs.” 

“On a statewide basis, the electric sector is already relatively low carbon and will be nearly carbon free and largely renewable by 2030 under current utility long-term power supply contracts” the plan notes, adding that the RES “is already based upon a percentage of total retail sales/load and therefore is designed to keep pace with electrification.”

The Climate Action Plan supports moving to a 100% renewable or clean energy standard once the Vermont Public Utility Commission (PUC) provides a rigorous study and review of how to do so fairly, and at reasonable cost. 

Despite that, some are advocating for dramatic changes to the RES prior to any PUC study or review. These changes would include restricting the use of existing cost-effective renewables that ratepayers have already invested in and limiting utilities’ flexibility to cost-effectively negotiate to procure resources. These changes have the potential to add tens of millions in power supply costs for our customers with very little to be gained in GHG reductions. The proposed changes would make it more expensive for Vermonters to pay for electricity that is already on a path to 100% renewable or carbon-free. 

Not only will this hurt customers economically, it will also make moving towards an electric vehicle or heat pump more expensive compared to fossil fuels. While current Vermont rates make it more affordable to drive electric, in neighboring Massachusetts recent rate hikes have meant the opposite, and driving electric there is now more expensive than fueling with gasoline. We must protect the cost advantage to drive electric here in Vermont. Proposed changes to the RES that would disadvantage heat pumps and electric vehicles would represent a step backwards when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

As public power municipal and rural electric cooperative utilities, we welcome the opportunity to consider cost-effective approaches to ensure 100% renewable and clean energy for Vermonters today and into our growing electric future. But before significant changes are made to the most successful climate change prevention measure Vermont has so far implemented, we should all want to understand the impact of changes, and there should be appropriate review from the PUC and careful consideration and analysis of the costs and the benefits to those changes.

This commentary first ran on on March 1, 2023.