Vermont is falling short of its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and generate renewable energy, according to the Energy Action Network.
The group said in its annual report released Tuesday that only 20 percent of the energy consumed in Vermont is from renewable sources, even though 43 percent of the state’s electricity comes from such sources.
Under a 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan, Vermont is required by 2050 to have a 90 percent renewable energy portfolio and an 80-95 percent reduction from 1990 greenhouse gas levels.
After the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement last year, Gov. Phil Scott and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger launched an effort to collect pledges from towns, businesses, nonprofits and colleges around the state to renew efforts to address climate change at a local level.
Greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing in recent years, however, with the most recent data showing emissions 4 percent higher than the 1990 target levels, according to the report.
Energy used for transportation and heating, which make up 73 percent of the state’s energy usage, still “overwhelmingly comes from fossil fuels,” according to Jared Duval, executive director of Energy Action Network, an organization made up of more than 200 nonprofit, business and public members. “The status quo of our energy system is harming Vermont,” he added.
Only 5 percent of energy used in the transportation sector could be considered renewable, according to the report, with most of that coming from “non-sustainable” ethanol. Heating has a slightly higher renewable rate at 20 percent, but the remaining 80 percent of energy used in that sector comes from oil, propane and natural gas.
The report lists 10 action items, or “drivers,” that would need to occur by 2025 to keep the state on track to meet its renewable energy and emissions reductions goals:
· Add 60,000 more electric vehicles
· Increase fuel efficiency for internal combustion vehicles by 5 percent
· Double rideshares for commuters
· Add 25,000 advanced wood heating systems
· Heat 60,000 more buildings with cold climate pumps
· Weatherize 60,000 more buildings
· Add 260 MW solar
· Add 115 MW wind
· Add 50 manure digesters
· Increase best management practices on agricultural lands
The report said measures such as biking, walking or bus riding “only extend so far in our rural environment” in reducing greenhouse gases. Vermont recently committed a substantial portion of its $18.7 million VW environmental mitigation funds to increasing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and an electric bus pilot program.
Ben Walsh, energy and climate director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said Vermont is doing “pretty well per capita” in the area of electric charging stations. However, he said the state could boost the switch to electric vehicles through purchase incentives, such as removing the 6 percent sales tax on electric vehicle purchases.
“There’s no way that with the population distribution … that we have, we are going to get to reduced carbon emissions without electrification of transportation,” he added.
The report suggests that despite the state’s progress on renewable electricity, in-state production of renewable electricity is not “flourishing in Vermont,” as shown in a Public Utility Commission report last year. The majority of Vermont’s renewable electricity comes from imported hydropower rather than from in-state renewables, according to the Energy Action Network report.
The solar industry lost 230 jobs in 2017 and installed 30 percent fewer panels than in the previous year. In addition, installation of wind turbines has essentially halted following outcry over noise levels and placement of turbines on ridgelines.
“Nobody that I’ve heard of is seriously considering bringing forward any substantial amount of wind,” said Walsh, adding that he only knew of one turbine under active consideration in the state.
Aside from reducing Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions, increasing renewable energy could create more jobs, according to the report, which said clean energy currently provides 19,500 jobs in the state. For example, installation of advanced wood heating systems could have a positive contribution to Vermont’s forest economy, according to Duval. He added that the wood needed to feed the 25,000 advanced wood systems could be sustainably harvested from the state’s forests, since decline in local paper mills has led to a decrease in timber harvested.
Home weatherization exemplifies “co-benefits” that come along with reducing fossil fuel use, according to Li Ling Young, senior energy consultant with Efficiency Vermont, the nation’s first “energy efficiency utility.” Many homeowners who contact Efficiency Vermont initially come to lower their heating bill or to increase the “comfort” of their home, according to Young, but the upgrades can also improve air quality.
Young said many local contractors have seen increased business from weatherization projects referred to them by Efficiency Vermont, which puts money back into the “local economy to keep circulating here” rather than into out-of-state fossil fuel production.
The action steps outlined in the report are not “prescriptive,” but the state would need “all 10 of these or the equivalent” to meet its targets, according to Duval. “All of the technology is proven and available — there aren’t any technical reasons why we couldn’t do that,” he said.
“It’s clear that the only way that’s going to happen is within the right policy structure and incentives that speed this kind of adoption,” Duval said.