Duval: Our responsibility and opportunity — moving beyond fossil fuels
Jan 31 2021
This commentary is by Jared Duval of Montpelier, executive director of the Energy Action Network and a member of the Vermont Climate Council. He was previously economic development director at the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
One thing the pandemic has underscored is the critical importance of acting swiftly on the best available data and evidence. Ignoring warnings, whether from public health experts or climate scientists, makes future options more limited, costly, and painful — and less effective.
As scientists make clearer every year, the climate crisis is real, getting worse, and profoundly threatening to lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems around the world. The consequences — from severe storm damage, sea-level rise, flooding, drought, and the spread of disease — impact us all. This global emergency requires each of us to do everything we can to hasten the transition off of fossil fuels as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, Vermont is currently responsible for creating the most climate pollution per person of any state in the Northeast. This is primarily because Vermonters drive more miles and in bigger fossil-fueled vehicles than our neighbors in surrounding states.
Too many people think that, as a small state, our emissions don’t matter in a global context. But the truth is that, like many collective action problems, no state or country alone can solve this challenge. That means we all have to do our part. If anyone shirks responsibility, the task becomes more difficult for everyone else.
Think of it like a barn raising: If we all help carry the load, it’s relatively easy to achieve an impressive task. But if some states or countries step back, the whole effort becomes more difficult, to the danger of all.
Moreover, our example matters. At our best, the Vermont way has been one of leading in response to generation-defining challenges: charting a path of progress that improves the lives of Vermonters while also inspiring similar movement elsewhere. We can’t live up to that legacy by denying that a challenge exists or by abdicating our responsibility at a pivotal moment in history.
While we all share a common responsibility to act, exactly what each state does should be guided by its unique local context. Here in Vermont, the vast majority of our climate pollution — over 70 percent — is related to the main ways that we get around (gasoline and diesel vehicles) and heat our homes and buildings (fuel oil, propane, and natural gas boilers and furnaces).
Our electric utilities are already required by policy and regulation to reduce emissions. They are making annual progress with changes to their power purchases and other innovative strategies. But the biggest sources of our climate pollution are gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, natural gas, and propane — and the companies that sell those fuels have so far been exempted from similar obligations.
What we need most is a policy and regulatory framework that requires pollution reductions from our transportation and heating sectors, with responsibilities for the entities that import and sell those fossil fuels. Otherwise, we’ll be doing little more than the equivalent of squirting a water pistol on a house fire.
Thanks to policies like our Renewable Energy Standard, Vermont’s electricity purchases are already 92 percent carbon-free (mostly from hydropower). While other states and countries sorely need to replace dirty electricity generation (from coal and other fossil fuels) with cleaner generation, that is not Vermont’s No. 1 problem. In fact, no matter how you measure it, our electricity is the least carbon-intensive in the United States. And while we can still do more to make our electricity sector even cleaner, our biggest opportunities to reduce both Vermont’s climate pollution and energy cost burden are to use more of our relatively low-emitting, low-cost electricity.
Electrifying how we get around and heat our homes and buildings is our most effective means of cutting carbon pollution in Vermont. That means policies, regulations and incentives to help switch to electric vehicles, cold-climate heat pump systems, and heat pump water heaters, among other solutions.
Each time a fossil piece of equipment is at the end of its life, we can benefit not only from switching to more efficient modern electric technology: Vermonters also achieve greater emissions reductions from those actions than anywhere else in the United States because of the comparatively cleaner electricity that will power them.
Calls for delay and inaction don’t just shirk responsibility; they also deny opportunity. Responding to the climate crisis is a chance to make energy more affordable for all Vermonters and can serve as Vermont’s lead economic development strategy for the next decade.
Vermont imports 100 percent of the fossil fuel we use and about 75 cents per dollar spent on that dirty energy drains right out of state, siphoning about $1.5 billion every year away from our struggling economy. In contrast, the efficient, electric and renewable alternatives keep far more of our energy dollars local, recirculating in a positive feedback loop that helps to support good, family-supporting jobs.
Perhaps the biggest benefit for Vermonters will be the savings that can come from ending our dependence on the high-cost, price-volatile fossil fuels that have strained our family and business budgets for too long. Eighty percent of the energy costs facing Vermonters come from transportation and heating fuels. Meanwhile, electricity prices have been more stable and lower cost than fossil fuels for a long time.
For instance, electric vehicle drivers in rural Vermont can save, on average, $1,900 every year by taking advantage of electricity that is, in many places, the equivalent of only $1 a gallon or less; lower maintenance costs; and lower purchase or lease costs than many expect (for instance, the best-selling EVs in Vermont, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt, can both be leased for less than $200 a month, with the Bolt for as low as $100 a month.)
Similar savings can be achieved by getting off fossil-fueled heating by weatherizing and switching to cold climate heat pumps and/or advanced wood heat (alone or in combination, depending on your situation). I can attest to this personally — not only have I saved money after weatherizing my home and then moving to heating with wood pellets, B-100 biodiesel, and a heat pump, but my home is also healthier and more comfortable.
To be sure, many folks are not in a place to be able to invest in new, nonfossil equipment — even if doing so can save them money over time. That is why we also need more policies, incentives and programs targeted to assist lower- and moderate-income Vermonters to ensure that we all benefit from this transition.
Doing our part to move beyond fossil fuels is a deep moral responsibility. But it’s also an opportunity that, done right, can strengthen Vermont’s economy, reduce energy costs, advance equity, and improve our quality of life.