Climate Matters: While CO2 reduction effort progresses, more work is needed


On Feb. 14, chair Howard Widelitz and I presented, on behalf of the Middlebury Energy Committee, our annual report to the selectboard on progress toward the town’s goal (adopted by the selectboard in 2021) of an 80% reduction by the year 2030 in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from town-owned properties and operations. You can see a version of that presentation, with text and graphics online at tinyurl.com/MiddCO2Report.

The town uses energy to power vehicles, to power off-road equipment (including water pumps and wastewater treatment facilities), and to heat buildings. 

Here are the main points from that presentation:

• Compared to the 2018-19 baseline, our 2022-23 GHG production from the town’s municipal operations is down more than 40%.

• This change is almost entirely due to reductions in the amount of fossil fuels that Green Mountain Power burns to produce the electricity the town uses for its operations.

• The observed reduction was limited to the period 2018-2021, with no substantial decline from 2021 to 2023.

• The amount of energy we use has been essentially flat over the five-year time period of the report.

• No one fossil fuel dominates the sources of GHG — we produce roughly equal amounts of GHG from gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, propane, fuel oil and electricity. 

• Our use of gasoline, diesel fuel, propane, natural gas, and fuel oil has fluctuated some year by year, but is not yet clearly declining.

The strategy to get to an 80% reduction in GHG has three components:

• Decarbonize the electricity. This is what Green Mountain Power is doing for us. The town also benefits from shares in three solar arrays.

• Electrify everything.

• Reduce consumption of fossil fuels when we can’t electrify yet.

For town operations, the second component means replacing equipment that uses fossil fuels with electric equivalents whenever possible — basically, every time a piece of fossil-fuel-burning equipment needs to be replaced. 

The fact that we use roughly equal amounts of the five main fossil fuels means that we have to address several of them to get to an 80% goal. 

While conservation and efficiency are important components of an overall strategy to get to our GHG reduction goal, we can’t get to an 80% reduction by conservation and efficiency alone. Consider our fleet of cars and trucks: assuming we continue to drive them about the same number of miles, we can’t reduce the fuel consumption of those vehicles by 80% by making them more efficient. Maybe 30 or 40%, but not 80%. We can only get to 80% by switching most of them to low-carbon electricity. Similarly, even with the draftiest and most poorly insulated building, it would be very hard to get to an 80% energy reduction from weatherproofing alone.

We have the technology now to replace fossil-fuel heating systems in buildings with cold-climate or ground-source heat pumps, and to replace fossil-fuel-burning light vehicles (sedans and pickups) with plug-in hybrid or fully electric equivalents. The town has made real progress with respect to vehicles (buying two electric vehicles for the Public Works Department, for example), and plans for the new Ilsley Library building call for it to be all electric and very energy-efficient. Several town vehicles are now powered with diesel fuel that is 20% from sources other than fossil fuels (known as B20 diesel). 

Electric replacements for heavy-duty vehicles are not as readily available. And the town has special requirements for some of its vehicles that are hard for current EVs to meet. For example, the town would like to buy a new, class 6 heavy truck, of the kind used for snow plowing. Electric vehicles in this weight class are only just becoming available. Even if we could buy one tomorrow, such a truck needs to be available for continuous use over longer periods than it could go without being taken out of service for recharging. Technological improvements may change this picture in future — with longer battery life, faster charging, and/or batteries that can be swapped out for charging. 

Recognizing technological limitations like this is one major reason why our goal for 2030 is for an 80% reduction in GHG production, not 100%.

While every organization is different in detail, the town of Middlebury is not very different from many other organizations that have an opportunity to reduce their GHG gas emissions and that have both vehicles and buildings — other towns and cities, school districts, county sheriff’s departments, businesses with service or delivery vehicles, and so on. The general strategy for all of them should be similar to that for the town of Middlebury: replace all fossil-fuel-burning equipment with electric equivalents as it needs replacing, and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels by equipment that can’t be replaced yet, e.g. by weatherizing buildings, use of smart thermostats, and use of B20 diesel fuel.


Richard Hopkins, a retired epidemiologist, is a member of the town of Middlebury Energy Committee and a board member of the Climate Economy Action Center of Addison County. 

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