Vermont climate panel urges action

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MONTPELIER — Vermont has committed to climate change on paper, but words have yet to be translated into meaningful action.

The state's latest greenhouse gas data shows that emissions have gone up each year for the past four years.

By law, Vermont is required by 2028 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent of what emissions were in 1990. Emissions have increased in recent years, however, with the most recent data from 2015 showing emissions 16 percent higher than the 1990 target.

At the current rate, Vermont will not meet its climate change target, according to a new report on the state's "climate economy," which makes 53 recommendations.

Gov. Phil Scott formed a commission last December charged with crafting a plan for meeting Vermont's renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals while spurring economic development and increasing energy affordability.

In the wake of the federal government's "retreat on climate leadership," the commission urges the Scott administration to "use our fundamental strengths and competitive advantage to tackle this urgent issue, bringing sustainable prosperity to our small but strong state."

Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources who serves as chair of the commission, said that most of the recommendations address "the two primary areas where most of our emissions come from" — transportation and building energy use.

The 21-member commission includes representatives from the state, businesses and environmental nonprofits. The commission attached scores to its recommendations — developed with input from the public — on greenhouse gas reduction potential, long-term savings, up-front investment and ease of adoption.

Transportation

Transportation makes up the largest chunk — 43 percent in 2015 — of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. The commissioners recommend building on existing efforts, such an the increase in charging stations around the state, to encourage Vermonters to switch to plug-in electric vehicles.

The current electric vehicle ownership figure of 2,500 falls far below the state's 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan goal of 45,000 electric vehicles by 2025.

Recommendations to move the state away from fossil fuel transportation include:

- provide a purchase incentive for electric vehicle ownership from [VW settlement money] and other funds

- determine how to target incentives to low and moderate income Vermonters

- strengthen the used electric vehicle market

- provide fast charging within 30 miles of all residents

- make electric vehicles available through cost-share programs

- use VW settlement funds to transition from diesel to electric buses

Vermont also needs to encourage more use of public transit, biking and walking, according to the report.

Reducing car trips is tied to a planning concept highlighted in the report called "smart growth," which Walke described as development that encourages "living and working and playing and shopping all within a walkable, bikeable area."

Heating

Vermonters purchase 135 million gallons of oil and propane each year for heat, which contributes to 24 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

Increasing funds for building efficiency retrofits in Vermont will lower heating bills and emissions, said the commissioners, who recommend doubling the state's low income weatherization program. The report also calls for the installatin of 60,000 space and water heat pumps, which are three to four times more efficient than traditional electric heating.

Advanced wood heat, a technology that has been hailed as Vermont's next solar, is highlighted in the report as a way to tackle climate change while providing jobs for foresters and wood pellet manufacturers.

"Fundamentally the forest products industry in Vermont needs low grade markets, so the leverage of expanding clean burning wood heat for homes and businesses is a tremendous opportunity for getting away from fossil fuels," said Paul Costello, co-chair of the commission, who directs Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Costello added that encouraging advanced wood heating "adds to the viability of the forest products industry as a whole."

The report also contains a section on capturing carbon through sustainable forestry and best management practices in agriculture, like cover cropping and no-till planting. The Nature Conservancy recently completed a conservation project that will enroll a large swath of forest in the Northeast Kingdom in California's carbon market.

Electricity

Many of the recommendations for transportation and heating call for switching from fossil fuels to electricity. Vermont has among the strongest renewable energy standards in the country, according to a report from Food and Water Watch.

The state is also considered a pioneer of grid modernization — an effort to develop an electric grid better able to store and transmit energy from decentralized renewable production — and authors of the report propose the state could capitalize on this expertise by becoming a mecca for businesses developing grid modernization technologies. The report proposes creating incentives, such as an innovation fund and grant program, to attract businesses that will further modernize the state's grid while creating jobs.

Absent from the recommendations was a call for additional incentives to spur installation of new solar arrays or wind turbines. The report refers to Vermont's "solar expansion" as "the most recent example of a successful demand-driven incentive."

Bill Laberge, owner of Grassroots Solar, painted a different picture of the current state of solar in Vermont. He said that the commission operated on the "assumption" that the state's 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan goal of having a 90 percent renewable energy portfolio by 2050 was already well on its way. The rollback of net metering programs and more rigorous siting requirements have made solar less feasible, he said.

"The policies that I see that are enacted right now are bringing solar to a screeching halt," Laberge said.

Call to action

While climate change action relies on "individual choices," according to Walke, he agreed that the state has a role to play in making those choices more affordable and accessible to Vermonters, especially in the absence of federal leadership.

Johanna Miller, energy and climate program director for environmental group VNRC, said that while the recommendations are strong in the "traditionally unregulated" fossil fuel reliant transportation and heating sectors, the true test is whether the governor will act on the proposals.

"I don't believe anyone expects the responsibility for progress in this arena to lay singularly on the governor," wrote Miller, who serves on the commission, in an email Friday. "But he needs to put some skin in the game and be willing to go on record, laying out the priorities he thinks will actually, measurably begin to bend the curve on our rising greenhouse gas emissions."

"If we do it in a proactive and strategic way, we can actually do well by doing right, meaning that we have this tremendous economic opportunity in moving this state off of fossil fuels," she added.

A meeting last Tuesday for the governor to discuss the recommendations with his commission was cancelled due to an "administrative oversight," said Rebecca Kelley, spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, in an email Friday.

Kelley said the governor will meet with the commissioners in the coming weeks and put the report out for public comment.

Elizabeth Gribkoff is VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. She can be reached by email at egribkoff@vtdigger.org.

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