Vermont Needs a Clean Energy Future – the Clean Heat Standard Won’t Get Us There

The Clean Heat Standard, as written, is far behind what Vermont needs to achieve our climate pollution targets.

Carbon-based fuels are what caused the climate crisis. We need to heat Vermont's buildings with clean energy if we want a chance at safeguarding a livable future. Photo: Shutterstock.

This morning, I awoke to the soft rumble of my heat turning on. As my feet hit the chilled, wooden floor, I begrudgingly made my way to the kitchen to boil a pot of tea. This is my daily morning routine – and it’s probably a familiar one to many of you. The appliances we use in our buildings and homes to heat and cook are significant parts of our lives, and things we’ll likely use for many years.

However, many of these appliances are powered by burning carbon-based fuels.

In fact, Vermont’s buildings spew about one-third of the state’s total climate pollution, making them a critical part of any strategy to slow climate change. The appliances we install in our buildings will be in use for decades. That means the decisions we make today will determine the amount of climate pollution our buildings cause for years to come.

It’s not just about daily routines, of course. Our children’s futures – and, indeed, our cherished way of life here in Vermont ­– depend on slashing climate-damaging emissions. The climate pollution targets required by Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act will ensure that the state does its part to slow these harms. 

We need well-designed policy to meet those targets. But the Clean Heat Standard now ready to become law would widely miss the mark.   

What Is the Clean Heat Standard?

The Clean Heat Standard would award financial credits for weatherization and heat pumps. But it would also award credits to fossil fuel distributors whose overall sales include not only fossil fuels but also alternative, climate-damaging fuels like “renewable” natural gas, biofuels, and biomass.

There is no such thing as a perfect policy, and the Clean Heat Standard should not be measured against an impossible bar. We know that people who earnestly care about climate change support this Clean Heat Standard. However, the current version of the standard is bad policy that would set Vermont on the wrong path because: 

  • It does not ensure the speed and scope of clean electrification necessary to slash polluting emissions and meet the targets of the Global Warming Solutions Act.
  • It incentivizes carbon-based fuels like biodiesel, biomass, and renewable natural gas that cause significant climate pollution when burned. These incentives will likely spawn investments in infrastructure that support such polluting fuels, limiting funding for clean, long-term solutions.
  • It does not guarantee the bedrock legal requirement of an environmental impact analysis, which the Vermont Senate removed from the bill. An environmental impact analysis would measure whether the Clean Heat Standard is actually helping our climate or damaging our health and environment.

The Clean Heat Standard Does Not Meaningfully or Rapidly Electrify Our Buildings

To cut climate-damaging emissions, we know that Vermont must move our buildings to electric heat systems that use clean energy sources. Governor Phil Scott’s administration recently assessed which policies can achieve the Global Warming Solutions Act targets. All of the policies the administration identified call for deeply cleaning up our state’s electricity sources and extensively electrifying our buildings’ heating systems.

But the current version of the Clean Heat Standard does not ensure those basic things will happen, both at a community and individual level. It does not incentivize community-scale solar or wind projects paired with heat pump incentives. Nor does it award rooftop solar or home battery storage projects coupled with heat pump installations. And it doesn’t make the upfront cost of heat pumps affordable for Vermonters with low-to-moderate incomes.

Not only are these solutions necessary to cut carbon pollution, but they’re also attainable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently noted that over the last decade, the costs of solar and battery storage decreased by 85% and wind costs decreased by 55%. Cold climate heat pump technology has also advanced, now efficiently and effectively heating homes when outside temperatures fall well below zero. 

A Clean Heat Standard should create real climate solutions that electrify our buildings with clean electricity sources. The proposed bill does not.

The Clean Heat Standard Incentivizes Polluting Fuels

The current bill also encourages expanding polluting technologies that cause significant climate-damaging emissions. Renewable natural gas, biofuels, and biomass are all carbon-based fuels that spew climate pollution when they are burned.  

Those carbon-based fuels require large investments in new infrastructure and new appliances that Vermont will have to abandon when State leaders implement real clean energy climate solutions. 

The reality is that many Vermont policymakers incorrectly think burning biofuels, biomass, and renewable natural gas doesn’t hurt our climate. That fallacy is infecting Vermont’s climate policy planning, including how the State counts its climate pollution levels

Burning carbon-based fuels got us into this fix. Burning more is simply not a realistic climate solution. It cannot form the basis of a responsible climate law.

The Clean Heat Standard Might Not Include an Environmental Impact Analysis

The bill omits a critically important environmental impact analysis – otherwise required for all new regulations. That omission is startling. 

Environmental impact assessments have formed the backbone of environmental protection for decades. They have prevented harmful policies that would have contaminated our drinking water, soil, air, and harmed our health. 

Some policymakers claim that there’s a possibility for an environmental impact analysis, even without the formal requirement, or that the administrative process might include a different type of environmental analysis. But it is too risky to leave something so important up to chance. And it sets a bad precedent to leave out critical environmental requirements from a major new policy.

Doing so is especially dangerous because the Clean Heat Standard, as written, is slated to hurt our environment. Biomass combustion, for example, will pollute our air with toxins linked to early death, asthma, and cancer.

No environmental policy should be exempt from core requirements like Vermont’s environmental impact analysis. But the Clean Heat Standard is.

If Not This Bill, Then What?

A market-based policy like the Clean Heat Standard could meet the targets of the Global Warming Solutions Act if designed properly. For example, it could rapidly electrify buildings with clean electricity by incentivizing community-scale solar and wind projects, and home solar and energy storage projects paired with heat pump incentives or installations. It could also limit the harms of carbon-based fuels by capping their use in Vermont to low levels – relying on them only for things that cannot be electrified or sunsetting their use by a specific date.

The U.N. climate panel unequivocally warns us that “it’s now or never” to avert the worst impacts of climate change. To secure a viable planet for our children and our Vermont way of life, we need to act now by implementing policies that are certain to significantly cut climate pollution. 

As proposed, the Clean Heat Standard is not designed to do that. It fails to encourage the rapid, clean electrification of our buildings. And it encourages Vermonters to burn polluting fuels. If passed, the bill would turn Vermont away from the path to our clean energy future.

CLF is committed to overcoming the shortfalls of the Clean Heat Standard and will continue to fight for proven policy solutions to climate change.

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