The Climate Council Doesn’t Want Its Plan to Burden Vermonters. Did it Deliver? | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Climate Council Doesn’t Want Its Plan to Burden Vermonters. Did it Deliver?

By

DIANA BOLTON
  • Diana Bolton

When Jared Duval was a kid, he and his mother lived in an uninsulated apartment above a garage in the Upper Valley. His mother eked out a living as a waitress, so on even the coldest winter days, they used the wall-mounted propane heater sparingly to save money.

"At night we'd set the thermostat just high enough to keep the pipes from freezing," Duval said.

His low-income family's struggle to afford high-cost, fossil-fuel heat made a deep impression on Duval. So, as a member of the Vermont Climate Council this year, he was one of several participants who insisted that while the state pushes aggressively to lower greenhouse gas emissions overall, it must also lower the burden of energy costs on people like his mother.

"How do we make sure that this transition has benefits that lower energy costs for Vermonters, especially low- and middle-income Vermonters who spend a disproportionate share of their household income on energy?" Duval, executive director of the Energy Action Network, asked during a recent interview.

Last week, after nearly a year of work, the 23-member Climate Council created by the legislature approved a 273-page interim climate action plan.

The document recommends an array of strategies to help Vermont more aggressively cut climate-warming emissions, absorb and store more carbon on farms and in forests, and prepare residents for more extreme weather events. The plan does not have the power of law but depends on lawmakers to enact strategies that will encourage Vermonters to drive electric vehicles, better insulate and more efficiently heat their homes, and get their electricity from cleaner sources such as wind, solar and biogas.

The council's road map differs markedly from Vermont's past efforts to address climate change by emphasizing equity, particularly its calls for greenhouse-gas-reducing incentives and subsidies to be focused on low-income, vulnerable and historically marginalized groups.

The bulk of the 230 recommended actions in the plan were selected with such people in mind, according to Sue Minter. She's a former Democratic candidate for governor and executive director of anti-poverty nonprofit Capstone Community Action, and she cochaired the council's Just Transitions Subcommittee.

"There was significant time and energy devoted to thinking deeply about systemic inequity and how and whether the policies being proposed could work to redress those inequities," Minter said.

Minter's subcommittee encouraged the council to take an expansive view that included considering the needs of those most exposed to climate risks, such as farmers, as well as people who have historically suffered from oppression, poverty and racism.

For example, the plan recognizes that those who lack resources or face discrimination can be more vulnerable to flooding and other impacts of climate change. It calls for providing money to help people relocate from flood-prone structures.

In the end, however, there wasn't enough time — because of pandemic restrictions and tight deadlines — to conduct the kind of robust dialogue needed to build trust with those marginalized communities, Minter said. The council has been up front about this failure, she noted.

"We absolutely fell short in deeply engaging folks," she said.

And yet Minter says the plan's clear, public call for equitable climate strategies sends a forceful message to lawmakers as they draft program details and adopt budgets in the months and years ahead.

Whether the plan's strategies would help or harm the Vermont economy and residents' household finances is a contentious political question.

Gov. Phil Scott has repeatedly expressed resistance to climate policies that increase Vermonters' cost of living. His administration did so again last week, claiming that the lack of detail in the climate plan makes it impossible to calculate its costs.

"We cannot support proposals which impose a fiscal commitment beyond the means of most Vermonters," the administration said in a press release issued minutes after the panel's 19-4 vote to adopt the plan.

The debate about whether the plan would result in higher energy costs and, if so, for which Vermonters, is taking place before lawmakers and regulators begin to turn the Climate Council's ideas into public policy.

But one economic analysis concluded that between now and 2050, Vermonters could come out $3.2 billion ahead by dramatically reducing fossil fuel use and turning to electricity for transportation and home heating.

That analysis, by two consulting firms, Energy Futures Group and Cadmus, also concluded that the transition would be extraordinarily expensive. An estimated $16.9 billion would be needed to better insulate buildings, bolster the state's electrical grid, install charging stations, and offer incentives to get people to buy EVs and electric heat pumps at the scale required. On the other hand, making those changes would help Vermonters avoid $20.1 billion in costs over that same period, because they would spend so much less on gasoline, propane, fuel oil and other fossil fuel products.

The difference between those figures — the $20.1 billion in fuel savings compared to the $16.9 billion in investments — is the $3.2 billion theoretical economic boost from the transition.

Critics who focus on how programs might increase future fuel prices conveniently ignore the drop in spending on those fuels from the transition, Duval said.

"The whole point of this plan is to help people get off of those fuels over the longer term," Duval said.

EVs still cost more to purchase on average than gas-powered cars, making it harder for lower-income people to afford vehicles that could save them money in the long run. Studies have shown that the average Vermont driver could save $1,500 a year in operating and maintenance costs by switching to an electric vehicle. That's why the plan calls for the state to expand subsidies to help lower-income residents buy EVs, Duval said.

Clean energy incentives have proven inequitable in the past. What good is a $7,500 tax credit if you don't earn enough to have tax liability to offset in the first place?

But incentives can be income sensitive. Minter noted that the state offers lower-income residents aid for buying used hybrid vehicles.

To pay for expanding such programs, the plan calls for the legislature to institute a "vehicle efficiency price adjustment" on the sale of new gas-powered vehicles. People could still buy inefficient, polluting gasoline cars and trucks, but they'd be hit with a fee to reflect that vehicle's pollution impact over its life, Duval said.

For example, the Ford F-150 Raptor is one of the least efficient new vehicles on the road, getting just 18 mpg on the highway. The all-electric version, the F-150 Lighting, gets 85 mpg. Drivers could still buy the gasoline version but would pay a fee, perhaps thousands of dollars. That money would help pay other drivers to choose cleaner EV options, Duval explained.

Such incentives are essential, Duval said, if the state is going to reach its goal of having 170,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030. This year, just 4,360 plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles were registered in Vermont.

That electric vehicle milestone is widely viewed as the toughest one for Vermont to meet if it is to fulfill its pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation accounts for 40 percent of the state's emissions.

Another lynchpin: The plan calls for subsidizing the widespread installation of efficient cold-climate electric heat pumps. The state needs 110,000 pumps to meet its 2030 emission-reduction targets, according to estimates. The anticipated cost savings from switching to heat pumps vary widely; a study done for the council estimated a central heat pump would save a household $1,235 annually over propane. Heat pumps work best in homes that are well winterized, and the plan calls for a dramatic increase in weatherization efforts, too, to the tune of 90,000 additional homes by 2030.

One way the plan envisions paying for those pumps would be to require heating-fuel dealers to meet a clean-heat standard. Small fuel-oil delivery companies, propane dealers and big companies such as Vermont Gas would have to reduce the carbon footprints of their operations.

To do so, they could switch to biogas, such as that generated from the new Vanguard Renewables digester in Salisbury that catches, cleans and sells methane from decomposing cow waste and food scraps. Or they could help customers switch to biofuels, use wood pellets, or install heat pumps, heat-pump water heaters and more efficient electric appliances.

While that may sound like an existential threat to the fossil heat industry, Matt Cota, head of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, said the plan at least acknowledges that emission reductions won't all come from switching to electricity.

"It recognizes that this work doesn't get done without the people who are, you know, actually doing the work: the heating fuel and heating service industry," Cota said.

The plan recommends that the legislature require any such program to deliver a "high fraction of clean heating solutions to low- and moderate-income households in the early years."

That equity language is more than rhetoric, according to Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore.

"I believe the plan puts those who can least afford it absolutely top of mind," said Moore, who served on the council and voted for the plan, with reservations.

The cost analysis performed for the plan shows that to achieve the required reductions, billions in clean energy investments need to be made now, well before 2030. Only after 2030 would fossil fuel purchases drop enough for the state to enjoy net savings. That's eight years of making multibillion-dollar investments to achieve significant but distant and often indirect economic benefits, Moore said.

In addition to questions about where the money for these investments would come from, it's uncertain whether the people that the subsidies and incentives are intended to help would be willing to go along. That's because the council heard from so few of them.

"We need relationship building and direct engagement with low-income communities to have a shared understanding of what actual barriers to adoption are, not what we think the barriers to adoption are," Moore said.

If, for example, the state adopts generous incentive programs to help people afford EVs, but the real barrier is the lack of charging stations in rural areas, then the aggressive adoption of EVs envisioned in the plan will likely fall short.

Moore is proud of the plan's aspirations but worries about the state's ability to accomplish them.

"Some of the goals feel really unreachable," she said. "I don't know that that means they're the wrong goals. I think it's a clear indication of how much work we have to do."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Retooling Refueling"