Discussion on Vermont’s energy future reignites talk of renewable energy and carbon tax debate

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont has made great strides in boosting its renewable energy portfolio during the past decade, and should now consider a carbon tax to encourage consumers to move away from fossil fuels and generate funds to help low-income residents make their homes more weather tight.
That position garnered support from several participants at an Oct. 30 forum in Middlebury titled, “Everyone’s Economic Opportunity in Climate Action.” Held at Danforth Pewter, it featured a four-person panel that included state Sen. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, and Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, both of whom offered their views on the state’s renewable energy policies and where additional progress could be made.
Also on the panel were Danforth CEO Bram Kleppner, and Karen Lafayette of the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council.
Monday’s forum was the last of five co-sponsored throughout the state this fall by the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR). The forums were intended to spur debate among the state’s various stakeholders on how climate change — seen by most as a pressing environmental challenge — could also serve as a major economic development opportunity for businesses specializing in green energy products and policies.
VNRC will share feedback from the five forums with members of Gov. Phil Scott’s new Vermont Climate Action Commission, charged with, among other things, unifying the state’s climate and economic goals.
Johanna Miller, VNRC’s energy program director, is a member of the 21-person Climate Action Commission. That panel has been asked to deliver, by the end of December, at least three potential policy solutions related to climate change and the state economy. Lawmakers will review the commission’s proposals and use them as the basis for legislation during the 2018 session.
In addition, the commission has been tasked with drafting a plan by July that would advise state officials on how Vermont could meet its greenhouse gas emissions and comprehensive energy plan goals.
“We are falling far short of meeting our (greenhouse gas emissions) goals,” Miller said. “In fact, greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont are up by around 4 percent. We have done a lot in terms of clean energy, but we’ve got more to do.”
Dan Barlow, public policy manager for the VBSR, noted there are currently thousand and thousands of clean energy jobs in Vermont — approximately one in 16 Vermont workers, according to Barlow. The Public Service Department’s 2017 Clean Energy Industry Report says there are more than 19,000 clean energy jobs in Vermont.
“This didn’t happen by accident,” Barlow said, noting the economic boom has been driven by consumer demand for such things as solar panels, a corresponding response to that demand by businesses, and legislative initiatives making it easier for residents and businesses to acquire renewable energy technology in Vermont.
“Smart policies at the state level will help Vermont along and bring all of Vermont to a clean energy future,” Barlow said.
But Barlow is among those who believe Vermont could more effectively secure its clean energy future by “putting a price on carbon pollution.”
The notion of a carbon tax has not gained much traction in Montpelier, particularly in these times of state budget shortfalls and rising property taxes. Gov. Scott has made it clear he’s against new fees and taxes. But Barlow and some of the other participants at Monday’s forum said they believed “carbon pricing” could give businesses a greater incentive to gradually wean themselves from fossil fuels, as well as create additional resources for low-income residents to weatherize their homes.
“We believe we can find a way with this policy that works for the size of Vermont, that works for Vermont’s communities and for the state’s business community as well,” Barlow said. “We can find a Vermont-sized approach for tackling carbon pollution and move folks more toward clean energy.”
Barlow pointed to other countries that have adopted carbon pricing rules. He specifically cited the case of the province of British Columbia, Canada, which in 2008 instituted a tax of $10 (Canadian) per ton on carbon pollution. That tax rose to $20 per ton in 2012.
“The result was, people bought less fuel,” Barlow said. “They traveled a little less. Businesses invested in efficiency and clean energy. Emissions were reduced by between 5 and 15 percent. And in British Columbia, the corporate income tax rate was cut from 12 percent to 10 percent. The lowest two income tax brackets in British Columbia were cut, and the lowest-income families got a tax credit. British Columbia returned $1.7 billion in tax cuts to taxpayers, and the economy in British Columbia grew faster than other provinces in Canada at the time.”
Barlow suggested Vermont could learn from British Columbia’s experience.
Bray is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee. As such, he will have a major say in which renewable energy bills get taken up next session. He has long been a fan of initiatives supporting renewable energy and helping communities produce their own food. Bray was the architect of the Farm-to-Plate legislation that has helped fuel the agricultural economy. Since Farm-to-Plate was enacted in 2009, Vermont has added more than 6,400 jobs to its food sector, in which revenues have been up around $100 million per year, according to Bray.
Now the county’s junior state senator believes it’s time for Vermont to re-localize its energy sector.
“We are talking about billions leaving the state in order to buy various (fossil) fuels,” Bray said.
He praised Vermonters’ collective demand for solar, wind, hydro and other forms of renewable energy. Bray noted more than 10,000 renewable energy projects have now been OK’d through the state’s net metering program.
“On a sunny, summer day in Vermont, more than 40 percent of our power is coming out of solar,” Bray said. “The only state with a higher percentage of solar power to supply their need is Hawaii, which is a far sunnier place.”
As of Jan. 1 of this year, 55 percent of all the electrical energy in Vermont is derived from renewable energy, according to Bray. State officials are seeking to bump that number to 75 percent by 2032.
Like several other attendees at Monday’s gathering, Bray said the state should take a next step into furthering its renewable energy goals. He plans to file a bill in January that proposes to require an accounting of the full cost of any new program’s use of fossil fuels, as measured by the impact of the CO2 emitted (see related story in green box above).
“When we don’t look at the full implications of burning fossil fuels, we under-appreciate their costs,” Bray said.
He pointed to a 2013 MIT study indicating 200,000 Americans die prematurely each year as a result of breathing in fossil fuel emissions. Millions more suffer from chronic diseases — such as asthma — associated with fossil fuel emissions, Bray noted.
“There’s a huge public health cost, and I want us to start quantifying these costs we have never labeled explicitly before, so as we start thinking about a carbon tax, for instance, that we look at a full accounting of what fossil fuels mean to our economy,” he said. “Then, I think it will be much more clear, compelling and direct that we ought to do a rational price that supports healthy practices, rather than continuing to rely on fossil fuels that have a lot of hidden costs that we do pay, but they might not come in the form of a price at the pump. They come in the form of a higher premium when you pay for health care.”
Sheldon is a member of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. As such, she will likely deal next session with bills relating to conservation and fossil fuels.
“It is incredibly exciting to be working on climate initiatives,” Sheldon said. “There is momentum behind (initiatives) many of us have known about for a long time.”
Sheldon was particularly upbeat about legislation related to regenerative agriculture, which includes building healthy soils that in turn help remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Sheldon just joined a United Nations working group that is coming up with soil organic carbon standards for the New England region. She and other lawmakers have been considering legislation that would offer special certification status for farms that engage in regenerative soil practices.
The future of agriculture in Vermont will depend greatly on expanding the organic market, Sheldon believes.
“The only sector in the dairy industry that’s growing right now is grass-fed organic,” Sheldon said. “The policies I will be pursuing in the coming year will be about ‘How can we invest in a new generation of farmers and help them transition and change their business model as they do it?’”
Kleppner said Danforth Pewter’s leadership is dedicated to operations that will have as little impact on the environment as possible. Danforth spearheaded a solar farm in Bridport that supplies twice as much electricity as the company needs; the balance is funneled into the state’s power grid.
Danforth’s casting pots run on propane and they will eventually be replaced with electric versions, according to Kleppner.
“The biggest fossil fuel use right now is with our employees coming to work,” said Kleppner. Company officials have been looking into transportation options for workers that would use less fossil fuel.
“We really believe we can do the right thing for the environment and make more money,” Kleppner said, an environmental approach that he believes has made a positive impression on some of Danforth’s loyal customers.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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