Our Work

The Total Energy Study: A Roadmap to Vermont’s Clean Energy Future

By Johanna Miller

Vermont has established clean energy and climate goals that anticipate the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels and the imperative to confront climate change. To that end, the state’s 20-year Comprehensive Energy Plan sets a goal of meeting 90 percent of Vermont’s energy needs by 2050 with renewable supplies. The state also established a statutory goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2028 and 75 percent by 2050.

But Vermont has a long road ahead to reach these goals. Only 16 percent of the state’s energy portfolio today is supplied by renewable resources. And how we will get there — how we will make the transition to more clean, renewable energy supplies — is not yet clear.

The state’s “Total Energy Study” being crafted at the Public Service Department aims to provide the necessary roadmap. The study is considering all our energy needs — heating, transportation and power — and is intended to serve as a “how-to” blueprint, pointing us in the best direction for meeting our energy and climate goals.

Since last June, armed with its initial “framing report,” the PSD has received input from energy experts, economists, diverse stakeholders and the public. This material has been distilled into an interim report, which the department recently released to the Legislature.

The interim report outlines five potential policy pathways and describes a mix of energy technologies and approaches that Vermont might embrace.

The potential policy pathways under consideration include:

  • Setting renewable targets in both efficiency and renewables and creating a bit of carbon revenue for clean energy investments.
  • A “Total Renewable Energy and Efficiency Standard,” which would require all providers of energy to meet a fraction of their sales with renewable energy or efficiency.
  • A nearly revenue-neutral carbon tax shift, in the form of an economy-wide carbon tax coupled with tax reform to cut other taxes, which would maintain or nearly achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Strategies specific to each sector — meaning that different solutions would be tailored to address a specific issue or opportunity within an explicit sector of the state’s energy economy.
  • A regional policy focus, which would aim to enact policies adopted at the regional level in the hopes of securing economies of scale and other benefits potentially beyond what one single state can do.

The report also analyzes the potential mix of technologies and approaches that could work best.

Should the state promote more local, diversified, distributed generation or invest more in solutions with greater economies of scale? Should biomass and biofuels play a far bigger role in our energy supply, or should Vermont embrace far more electrification to meet our energy needs across sectors?  How large a role can energy conservation and efficiency play in reducing the need for energy generation? What kinds of land use strategies will be required to foster compact, walkable communities and less reliance on single occupancy vehicles?

These are big questions with no answers yet — or probably anytime soon.

“It’s a process intended to help set us on a path,” explains Asa Hopkins, the director of energy policy and planning at the Public Service Department. “We know that the first thing we have to do is drive demand down as much as possible. From there, we can ask how to meet the remaining demand in the right way. “

Hopkins characterizes the Total Energy Study as a way to think about the problems and potential solutions rather than the exact details at this point: “We hope that by pointing out which policies might be effective and work well compared to others, and which technology directions are likely to have the greatest benefits for Vermont and the economy compared to others, that we will be able to have more focused, informed conversations about the kinds of policies to enact and which direction to go.”

Gaining more clarity on the clean energy path forward will be a difficult process. But it’s one that is gaining appreciation.

“Vermont, the United States and the world have to realize a new energy future based on clean, affordable and secure forms of energy,” says Andrea Colnes, executive director of the Energy Action Network, a diverse collaboration among business, government and nonprofit organizations working together to achieve the goal of 90 percent renewables by 2050.

Colnes comments, “The Total Energy Study provides two important opportunities. One is to think about energy from an integrated perspective versus a siloed, piecemeal approach. The other is that it gives Vermonters a valuable platform to work together to craft a sustainable energy future instead of having it come at us in an unplanned, divisive way.”

The five potential policy pathways and technologies outlined in the interim report will be whittled even further, based on public comment taken until January 22 and further Department review. At that point, Dunsky Energy Consulting, a Montreal-based firm, will perform a quantitative analysis of the three top-tier policy priorities, putting hard numbers to the benefits and costs of the different approaches. Those findings will be released in a final draft of the Total Energy Study, expected this summer.

“The TES is an important step in Vermont’s energy planning process but it’s an iterative process. Our hope is that this analysis informs Vermont’s policy and program development, as well as the next Comprehensive Energy Plan,” says Hopkins.

“The era of cheap, easy energy is over. The conventional fossil fuels upon which we’ve built the world’s economies are harder to reach, increasingly expensive and wreaking havoc on our planet,” notes Vermont Natural Resources Executive Director Brian Shupe. “Broad-based solutions like those the total energy study is exploring — energy efficiency and conservation, renewable energy generation, transportation reform and smart land use strategies — are necessary for planetary and economic stability. This process is really important.”

This article was printed in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald on Sunday, January 12.
Johanna Miller, energy program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, can be reached at jmiller@vnrc.org.

Read and offer your thoughts on the PSD’s interim report before January 22.