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Public hearings planned for Vermont Climate Council’s proposal

 Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2021 9:34:38 PM
Modified: 9/7/2021 9:34:44 PM

THETFORD — Environmental groups and state officials are holding public meetings this month as a comprehensive plan to cut emissions under Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act is drafted.

Passed last year over Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s veto, the measure commits Vermont to reaching a “net-zero” of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 when combined with carbon sequestration. Since October, five subcommittees operating under the direction of a state-created Climate Council have developed strategies to accomplish that by changes to the electric grid, home heating, agriculture and adaptations for the effects of climate change.

The Climate Council, which is overseeing the plan, will be holding public meetings, including a virtual meeting about its proposals for the agricultural sector on Sept. 14.

“Because of the short timeframe provided by the Global Warming Solutions Act, there is a lot going on simultaneously,” said Susanne Young, who chairs the Climate Council. The Council is only in the early stages of drafting the plan, although it is already engaging with the public. Vermonters’ opportunity to voice any concerns about the plan will not expire when it is presented to the Legislature on Dec. 1. Young said that there will be extensive feedback and revisions through January 2022.

“It will be an initial plan. This council doesn’t go away, and the plan may incorporate more thinking and could significantly change,” she said.

Meanwhile, the climate advocacy nonprofit 350Vermont is revving up its “Just Transition Campaign” and organizing meetings across the state, including in Thetford on Saturday (Sept. 11) and in Randolph on Sunday (Sept. 12).

Among the strategies the Climate Council is considering are recommendations for carbon sequestration on Vermont’s farms; programs to encourage Vermonters to buy electric or low-emission vehicles; expanding carbon sequestration on farms; fostering compact communities to reduce commute distances; and building on Efficiency Vermont’s work to weatherize more homes.

Recommendations presented in July also call for Vermonters to move away from fossil fuels for how they heat their homes, travel and move goods, favoring electric heat pumps and EVs over oil furnaces and gas-fueled cars and trucks.

What counts as progress?

While the new law is intended to reduce emissions by relying more on electricity, some environmental advocates have raised concerns about how greenhouse gas emissions are counted.

“If greenhouse gas emissions are not counted accurately, then the policies that come out of this implementation and planning process are not counted properly and may be ineffective or even counterproductive,” said Thetford resident Stuart Blood, a volunteer with 350Vermont who has been attending subcommittee meetings of the Climate Council over the last several months.

Blood is a critic of renewable energy credits, known as RECs. RECs are usually sold to the utility company in order to help the state meet its renewable energy goals. Because Vermont counts hydropower as renewable, Green Mountain Power often sells solar and wind credits to utilities in other states and replaces them with cheaper hydropower credits at a profit. The company argues that this model helps it keep customers’ monthly utility bills low.

But some environmental advocatse caution that moving to electrification would only be effective if the power plants are fueled by renewable sources, and not fossil fuels or hydropwer.

Blood and others involved with 350Vermont argue that the state may be undercounting emissions because Vermont’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory does not take into account emissions from the production and transportation of fossil fuels out-of-state, or methane emissions from hydropower in Quebec or fracking.

“The strategy seems to be to electrify transportation and building heat, but if we move loads into the electric sector we could be actually increasing emissions because we’re not counting all of the emissions that are actually associated with electricity use in Vermont,” Blood said.

A subcommittee advising the Climate Council is considering how a “lifecycle” or “upstream” accounting of greenhouse gases — which would include all emissions before a given raw material arrives at a processing plant — could help inform the state’s decisions if it “stood alongside” the state inventory.

Wilder resident and grid expert Meredith Angwin characterized RECs as “deceptive,” but her chief concern is about grid reliability. Last September, Angwin, who has long been a proponent of nuclear power, published Shorting the Grid, a book about the fragility of the American electric grid and the danger of blackouts. Her research has made her acutely aware of the importance of a secure energy grid.

“Complete electrification is not a good goal,” she said. “I’m not doing it in my house.”

She has a wood-burning stove and two propane-burning stoves in her Wilder home, in part so that she can ensure that she is not without heat if there is a blackout.

She also raised concerns about the reliability of intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Natural gas, nuclear, hydropower or batteries — whose technology is not advanced enough to back up the whole grid — have to pick up the slack when wind ebbs or clouds block the sun

“I think that a reliable grid is very important,” she said. “People take reliability for granted, but when it goes away they’re not happy at all and people die … We have to treasure the angelic miracle that the grid is.”

Biomass

Matt Cota, who directs the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, said that he is more “optimistic” about the climate action plan than he was a year ago. He feels that the Climate Council and its subcommittees recognize the role that fossil fuel providers should have in the drive to reach net-zero emissions.

The recommended strategies proposed in late July included establishing a “clean heat standard” that would incentivize fossil fuel alternatives including heat pumps, pellet stoves, biofuels and “renewable natural gas,” such as methane captured from a landfill.

“Can we transform this industry so that we can deliver a lower carbon fuel? Absolutely. We have before. We used to sell coal. We can sell a lower-carbon fuel so long as the accounting takes into account the contributions that they have made,” Cota said.

He argued that it is much more practical to have alternative “drop-in fuels” that do not require all-new infrastructure than to go all in on electrifying transportation and home heating — especially for low- and middle-income Vermonters. The transition needs “trucks to move panels, ships to move supplies, and other renewable fuels for people who can’t afford new stuff,” he said.

Scot Zens, a Thetford resident and volunteer with 350Vermont, expressed concern about looking to “renewable” natural gas as a solution. In particular, he was afraid that the state would be “building infrastructure not to fill with methane gas but with fracked gas” — what he called the “dirtiest” fuel there is.

He also raised concerns about the “lifecycle costs” of biomass — after all, the wood that burns as wood pellets is no longer in the forest absorbing carbon. 350Vermont has raised concerns about logging in state forests, although previous state studies indicate that Vermont’s forests can sustainably yield much more wood than they do today.

Although Zens said that he saw a place for fuels such as wood pellets, especially for affordability reasons, he emphasized that it is “still a dirtier fuel than a truly renewable source.”

350Vermont, which is organizing a statewide advocacy effort focused on equity, has 10 goals for the Vermont plan, including taking renewable natural gas off the table as an option and instead promoting more community solar projects, which makes solar more accessible for middle-income households. It is also pushing for an increased commitment to public transportation and weatherization of low-income housing stock.

The Climate Council and its subcommittees will review feedback from public comments and stakeholder meetings before submitting a draft plan to state officials and the Legislature.

The Sep. 14 meeting regarding agriculture will be held virtually from 6 to 8 p.m. The final agenda has not been posted yet. Further information about the state’s plans for engagement can be found on the Agency of Natural Resources’ website at the “Supporting Documents” tab under “Vermont Climate Council.”

350Vermont and Vermont Renews’ meeting in Thetford will take place on Saturday, Sep. 11 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Outdoor Classroom at Thetford Academy at 304 Academy Road. Their meeting in Randolph will be held on Sunday, Sept. 12, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Ayers Brook Farm at 301 Route 12.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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