Vermont’s energy policies enacted and implemented over the past six years by the majority party parallel the same wasteful and undemocratic pattern as its health care and education policies.
A 2015 report by the federal Energy Information Agency provides baseline context for Vermont’s carbon dioxide emissions. It reports that at 5.6 million metric tons, Vermont’s emissions are the lowest in the nation, and on a per-capita basis are second lowest among the 50 states.
Further, a 2015 report from Vermont’s Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation indicates that Vermont is near net neutral relative to carbon dioxide emissions. The profile states: “Statewide greenhouse gas emissions are estimated at 8.37 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year. Vermont forests remove an estimated 8.23 MMTCO2e per year.”
Bottom line, Vermont contributes little net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere while other states, such as Texas and Pennsylvania, are the real culprits, with large emissions on both a total and per-capita basis.
So, given this context, is it vital that Vermonters allow their political leaders to hand over our iconic ridgelines, meadows and pastures to large renewable developers who, without hesitation, rip apart and deface the landscape of Vermont?
This question is of special importance when considering the source of Vermont’s carbon dioxide emissions. From the EIA report: “For example, in Vermont the largest share of emissions in 2013 came from the transportation sector (56 percent), predominantly from petroleum, but the electric power sector share was 0.2 percent, because Vermont had almost no generation using fossil fuels. Vermont’s residential sector share was 23 percent – indicative of a relatively cold climate where petroleum is the main heating fuel.”
Given these two primary sources of Vermont’s carbon dioxide emissions, the obvious question is whether there is a direct and powerful connection between industrial ridgeline wind and valley solar projects and the mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes and furnace chimneys? I think not.
Further, our complicit political leaders have Vermont’s state and federal taxpayers and electric ratepayers handing over millions of dollars annually to subsidize renewable-energy developers. A May 2016 report by UVM’s Legislative Research Service profiles the lengthy list of direct subsidies, tax credits, sales tax breaks, property tax breaks, feed-in-tariffs and electric rate surcharges, among others, which fuel Vermont’s renewable energy developers, who without such could not survive on their own.
And a 2016 Public Service Board order profiles how just one such ratepayer subsidy sets expensive price caps relative to the market and allows developers an enviable rate of “return on equity.” The order states: “Rate of Return: continue to assume 9.6 percent, which is equivalent to GMP’s current return on equity.” Surely, a nice investment for those so privileged but one that contrasts sharply with the 2 to 3 percent annual returns average Vermonters earn on long-term investments.
And to cap it all off, there’s this absurd result. The renewable energy credits created with taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ subsidies are most often sold out of state and, as our attorney general informs us, once sold cannot be counted as “renewable” in Vermont. Perversely, such RECs cannot count toward Vermont’s official goal of “meeting 90 percent of the state’s energy needs through renewable sources by 2050.” By selling the RECs, Vermont has created a perpetual money machine for renewable developers, as the 90 percent goal can never be achieved if RECs are sold.
The best I can say about all this is that it’s far removed from the Jeffersonian Vermont I grew up in, and another shameful example of the concentration and abuse of power under the Golden Dome. With energy, health care and education policies, among others, the demands of politically connected special interests take precedence. The worst I could say is it’s Tammany Hall-type political corruption done the “Vermont Way.” The majority party has morphed to an amoral political machine at taxpayer and ratepayer expense. Our political leaders and special interests scratch each others’ backs, fueled by higher taxes, higher electric rates, higher fees and higher health care premiums forced upon Vermont’s citizens. It’s all about the money and centralized power, and when there is criticism of such behavior, a high-priced Montpelier lobbyist or law firm or both are hired to spin their narrative more favorably and defame their opposition (think Annette Smith), just like lobbyists on K Street in Washington D.C.
There’s only one hope for a cure to this sickness, and it’s at the ballot box. Vermonters need to trust more what they see directly in key areas such as energy, health care and education, and less what they’re told, as much of what passes as information is manufactured by the special interests and for the special interests. Absent voter action, Vermont will continue down a path of one-party cronyism funded by taxpayers, fee payers, ratepayers and insurance premium payers, among others.
Tom Pelham is a former finance commissioner in the Dean administration, tax commissioner in the Douglas administration and member of the Vermont House.