Op/Ed

Climate Matters: A conversation with Rep. Amy Sheldon on the Renewable Energy Standard

AMY SHELDON IS a natural resource planner and a member of the Vermont House of Representatives who works diligently on environmental issues.

The Renewable Energy Standard, passed by the state Legislature in 2015, sets targets for the amount of renewable energy used in Vermont, states how much of that energy must be generated in Vermont, defines what kinds of energy count as renewable energy, and puts in place a system of renewable energy credits as a way to account for all of the above.

Climate Matters columnist Mike Roy sat down with Vermont State Rep. Amy Sheldon of Middlebury — who chairs the House Committee on Environment & Energy and co-chairs the Renewable Energy Standard working group — to talk about the Renewable Energy Standard and her views on energy and Vermont.

Here’s their conversation:

Mike Roy: Before we get too deep into the weeds, why was the Renewable Energy Standard created to begin with? Why is it being looked at this fall? And why should anybody other than an energy wonk care about any of this? 

Amy Sheldon: The Renewable Energy Standard was created to promote the transition to renewable energy. According to the folks who help us with the accounting, Vermont has the greenest grid of any state in the country now in large part because of it. It went into statute in 2015 and into effect in 2017. It is now six years later and other New England states have pushed the ball a little further up the hill, and it’s time for us to look at our renewable energy standard. 

To understand why this matters, you have to look at the bigger picture. Right now in Vermont and in the country and the world, we face three major crises. We have a public health crisis. We have a biodiversity crisis. And we have a climate crisis. For me, all three are interwoven. Every bill we take up this session is going to be evaluated in that frame. The biodiversity bill, which is also called the 30 by 30 bill, sets in statute the goals of conserving 30% of our lands and waters by 2030. We’ve also been working hard for a number of years to update statewide land use regulation, and this year we’re going to be working on that again. We see that as a complement to the conservation bill. 

But of course, you can’t conserve everything! How does our statewide land use regulation support the goals of addressing human health, biodiversity, and climate resilience, and modernize those statutes? We’re also going to be looking at the renewable energy standard, which is what a lot of people think of when they think of addressing climate. But I see all three efforts — land use, conservation, and renewable energy — addressing the overlapping crises that we face.

Mike: What is the rationale behind asking Vermont to generate increasingly more of its own renewable energy?

Amy: The thinking behind it is simple: We should do our part, even if Vermont is a very small fraction of the New England grid. Interestingly, I don’t actually know yet how much we use RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) to meet our goals. There is concern that the use of RECs is actually keeping us from adding more renewables. Our work this fall is to make sure that we’re legitimately increasing our reliance on renewables, including our in-state contribution to that.

Many of us care about climate change broadly and want to be part of the solution. And to be part of the solution is to electrify. And then to make sure that to electrify means not burning carbon to generate that electricity. The whole vision for a resilient grid is reliant on both being interconnected as a region and independent on the town level where we have redundancy and local generation so that when one part of the grid goes down, we can still have a functioning economy. When we invest in local renewable energy, we increase our own local resilience. 

Mike: There is a great deal of debate about what should count as renewable energy. In these debates, three types of energy are usually targeted: biofuels, hydropower and wood. Is the question of what should count as renewable going to be engaged during the revision of the Renewable Energy Standard? And to what extent will the decisions and recommendations be informed purely by science, and to what extent will economics come to bear on what gets to count as renewable?

Amy: Mother Nature bats last. No matter how we account for things, there are the laws of physics at work, and carbon is carbon. We can talk about whether the carbon we’re burning is renewable because the trees will grow back in a hundred years, but the reality is we don’t have 100 years. The other reality is we have invested in wood-fueled energy plants to create electricity, which we know is among the least efficient ways to make electricity. From where I sit, the things that we do have to be grounded in are the reality that we need to stop burning things, and the reality that we need to keep the lights on. In the case of Hydro-Quebec and hydropower, it is our baseload power supply now, and it’s better than a lot of our other options and we want the power to stay on. And so it would be self-defeating not to use it. But we don’t want to be part of a market that pushes Hydro-Quebec to get bigger and do more harm. 

Mike: If people want to learn more, where can they go? And what are the venues available to citizens to have their voices heard as this process unfolds? 

Amy: There are two processes going on right now. The Public Service Department is in the lead on a longer, more in-depth public engagement process that I hope people have known about and are aware of (publicservice.vermont.gov/renewables). And then we have the legislative Renewable Energy Standard Working Group, and we have a web page (ljfo.vermont.gov/committees-and-studies/renewable-energy-standard-working-group) at the Joint Fiscal Office that is tracking our committee’s work. Every meeting, we have time allocated for brief public comments and we are taking written comments continually throughout the process. 

Our two processes are nested together. The Public Service Department has hired an economic consulting firm that is looking at scenario modeling, noting the different benefits and costs of different scenarios involving changing the Renewable Energy Standard. Our consultant will take those scenarios and look at the ramifications for the Vermont economy. 

Mike: Final Thoughts? 

Amy: Front and center for me is how much energy we use as a state and as a country, in comparison to other countries. There is an environmental impact to all energy production and there are environmental equity and justice issues with both renewable energy and carbon releasing energy. Electricity can be an efficient way to heat our homes and drive our cars, but we still need to pay attention to how we can use less energy overall. 

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Mike Roy, a frequent contributor to Climate Matters, serves on the Middlebury Town Energy Committee and on the board of the Climate Economy Action Center of Addison County.

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