By Frederick Weston
Two years ago, Vermont adopted the Global Warming Solutions Act and committed to reducing our carbon emissions 80% by 2050. The act isn’t just another dreamy plan: it set near-term targets that must be met if we’re to achieve these legally binding requirements in the least economically disruptive and most beneficial ways for Vermonters. By 2030—a mere eight years from now—the state must reduce its total state greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, by 40% below 1990 levels—and it should do so while saving Vermonters money.
Vermont’s primary sources of carbon emissions are vehicles and buildings—moving people and goods around and keeping warm in the winter. Transitioning these activities to low-carbon sources will take time, which means we’ve got to get going right now.
Buildings are responsible for about a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. This week and next, the Vermont Senate will be considering a bill that the House sent to it earlier this month based on a recommendation of the Vermont Climate Council. The bill will create a clean heat standard—a performance standard applied to fossil fuel importers requiring them to provide increasing amounts of non-fossil heat services to Vermont customers over the coming years. It’s a market-based approach similar to other energy performance requirements, such as those for renewable energy and end-use efficiency, that have been extraordinarily effective in Vermont, across the US, and in China, Europe, and elsewhere around the globe.
And here’s the kicker: the clean heat standard will reduce emissions, but it will also save money, today and in the long run. This is because the costs of clean solutions—among them, weatherizing homes, heat pump water heaters, cold-climate heat pumps for space heating, pellet stoves, and other advanced wood heat systems, biofuels and renewable natural gas, and district heating systems—are coming down in relation to, and in many cases are already lower than, those of their fossil-fuel counterparts. By requiring fossil fuel suppliers to reduce emissions, modestly at first but with increasing intensity over the years, the clean heat standard creates a demand for investment in clean technologies. And, significantly, the legislation requires that roughly 60% of the emissions reductions in the residential sector come by serving the needs of low-and middle-income Vermonters.
The clean heat standard gives obligated parties, the fossil heat companies, great flexibility in meeting the standard. All they have to do is deliver or pay for some mix of clean heat solutions in line with Vermont’s legally binding greenhouse gas requirements. Individual customers are not required to do anything until they are ready to, and then the clean heat standard will provide a range of options — as well as financial and technical support — to meet their needs. There’s no pie-in-the-sky element to this. We’ll be doing what Vermonters have always been good at doing: solving problems practically, collaboratively, and at the least cost.
The clean heat standard emerged from a yearlong effort by a working group that included energy experts, environmental advocates, weatherization and efficiency providers, public officials, utilities, and fuel dealers. It was adopted by the Vermont Climate Council as a key element in the new climate action plan. It’s been poked, pinched and dissected and through that intense public review has been made better. It has broad support among legislators and policymakers, energy providers, housing advocates and environmentalists. If implemented, the clean heat standard will produce more than a third of Vermont’s promised greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 and after. It will also reduce the state’s enormous fossil heat bill—we export nearly $1 billion every year to buy fossil heat fuels—and get us off the wild roller coaster ride of global oil prices.
The clean heat bill is the single most important thing we can do to reduce our emissions and improve the welfare of our most vulnerable fellow citizens. It’s time to act. The Senate should pass the bill right away, and the governor should sign it.
Weston lives in Waterbury.