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Clean energy mandate for Vt. utilities becomes law after Democrats override veto

A group of adults and young kids on a lawn holding colorful homemade signs that say things like 'climate justice' and 'solar power.'
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Hannah Morgan, far right, and other members of an organization called "Families Rise Up," greeted lawmakers at the Statehouse Monday to urge them to override Gov. Phil Scott's veto of a bill that requires utilities to source more power from in-state renewables.

The biggest energy policy to come out of Montpelier this year is hitting home in concrete ways for two Vermont mothers who showed up to the Statehouse on Monday.

Hannah Morgan lives in Plainfield with four kids between the ages of 10 months and five years, and she greeted lawmakers outside the entrance to the Statehouse to urge them to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a bill that's known as the "renewable energy standard."

The legislation requires all Vermont utilities to source 100% of their energy from renewable sources by 2035. For Morgan, who has existential concerns about what climate change means for her children’s future, the proposal represents the sort of climate solution that generates hope.

“As a parent, for me, that’s the best thing I can do, because just wallowing in a pit of despair of how bad everything is is a lot worse than doing my little part,” Morgan said Monday. “I care about my own kids’ future, and I feel like it’s threatened by what we’re up against.”

Climate change is bringing more-frequent and severe flooding to Vermont and average temperatures have risen by nearly 3°F since the beginning of the 20th century.

Alison Despathy lives in Danville with three kids between the ages of 12 and 20, and she went to the Statehouse Monday because she’s worried about her children’s future, too. For Despathy, however, it’s the renewable energy standard, along with increases in taxes and fees, that pose the threat.

“I just feel that Vermonters need to be able to afford to live in Vermont,” said Despathy, who has serious concerns about what the utility mandate will mean for electricity rates. “People are paying a lot more already, on top of massive inflation. So I think that’s where legitimately Vermonters have major concerns about, ‘Am I going to have enough money to live here and pay my bills, pay my taxes?’”

Morgan and Despathy embody the tension that elected officials tried to navigate this year as they debated legislation that will determine the source of the electricity that Vermonters use to power their homes, businesses and, increasingly, their vehicles.

Democratic lawmakers overrode Scott’s veto of their renewable energy standard Monday, setting in motion a multi-year plan that not only requires utilities to have 100% renewable portfolios by 2035, but also mandates that more of that power come from in-state generation projects.

Dover Rep. Laura Sibilia, an Independent, said the measure will protect ratepayers from volatile spikes in fossil fuel costs while reducing the emissions that are contributing to climate change.

“Our bill is designed to address the unique needs of Vermont’s varied utilities and to enhance the resilience of our grid, particularly in rural areas,” Sibilia said Monday.

In his veto message, Scott said the renewable energy standard comes with a cost that many Vermonters cannot afford.

How much the bill will cost has been hotly debated.

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office issued six fiscal notes for the bill during the session. Ultimately, JFO estimates the bill would cost Vermonters between $150 million and $450 million by 2035, which the office predicts is the equivalent of adding between $4.50 and $13.50 to the average Vermont household’s monthly electric bill by the same year. The body has also stressed that a lot of uncertainty remains when it comes to estimating the cost of the bill.

Scott’s Department of Public Service presented lawmakers with an alternative plan that would also have decarbonized Vermont's grid, albeit more slowly, and with less of an emphasis on in-state generation of renewable energy.

Democratic lawmakers rejected that proposal, saying their plan is a grand bargain of sorts between utilities, environmental advocates and the energy industry.

Granby Rep. Terri Lynn Williams, a Republican who voted to sustain Scott’s veto on Monday, represents one of the lowest-income legislative districts in Vermont. She said she the renewable energy standard is a symptom of a Legislature that’s lost touch with working Vermonters.

“We can’t afford to live here anymore. Our children are leaving the state. Instead of helping us help ourselves, you are destroying our very existence,” Williams told her colleagues Monday. “I have reminded you several times, ‘Leave us alone. Stop putting these financial burdens on us, and we can survive.’ You are not listening. The Vermont we grew up in no longer exists.”

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Corrected: June 20, 2024 at 9:16 AM EDT
This story previously mischaracterized the Scott's administration's proposed energy plan for utilities.
The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.