Brattleboro Reformer – October 6, 2021

Our state motto can and should be a guide for Vermont’s energy future. But first we must recognize just how much our current fossil fuel dependence undermines both freedom and unity.

Vermont imports 100 percent of the fossil fuel we use. This makes us dependent on oil-exporting countries, puts our energy dollars in the hands of multinational fossil fuel corporations that fund climate science denial, and aids leaders in countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia who abuse human rights and undermine democracy. On average over the past decade, we have spent about $2 billion a year on fossil fuels for transportation and heating — quite a chunk out of our approximately $33 billion state economy — with about 75 percent of those dollars, or $1.5 billion a year, draining right out of Vermont’s borders.

In contrast, all of the alternatives that can reduce or eliminate fossil fuel dependence keep a far larger share of our hard-earned dollars recirculating here in Vermont, supporting jobs for our neighbors and reinvesting in the Vermont economy and Vermont values in a positive feedback loop. A “Vermont way” for energy includes home weatherization, electric vehicles or other clean and efficient transportation options, use of heat pump technology for space and water heating, locally sourced wood used in efficient stoves and boilers, and sustainably sourced B100 biodiesel to replace fuel oil.

Think about it: when we invest in home weatherization, most of that money goes to local contractors, supporting jobs for our neighbors and then lowering our heating bills year after year. Or when we purchase electricity to power an EV or heat pump, our energy dollars support line-workers, tree trimmers, and local clean power producers. And when we heat with local wood, our energy dollars go to Vermonters who are forestland owners, foresters, loggers, and truckers, investing in a value-chain that helps to keep our forests as forests. All of these clean alternatives to climate-polluting fossil fuels don’t just enhance our freedom by creating more energy independence — they also strengthen our sense of unity by investing in our community.

As we work to create more high quality, family-supporting jobs for un- and under-employed Vermonters, clean energy jobs offer a promising pathway. On average, wages in the clean energy sector are higher (approximately $27/hour median wage) than the statewide median wage for all sectors ($19/hour). Recent analysis from EAN shows that weatherizing the homes of 120,000 low and moderate income Vermonters over the next decade would help create or support about 5,000 jobs—and that represents just a fraction of the overall energy transformation activity that Vermont will need to build the climate economy that can meet our legally binding emissions reduction commitments. The economic opportunity is immense.

Aside from contributions to the state economy and local jobs, perhaps the greatest benefit of getting off fossil fuels is the savings it can mean for Vermont consumers. Over time, fossil fueled vehicles and heating systems have generally been the highest cost ways of getting around and keeping homes and buildings warm. Specifically, propane and fuel oil have been more expensive, with higher and more unpredictable price spikes, than alternatives like wood heat and efficiently-used electricity via modern cold climate heat pump systems.

And even when gas and diesel prices are relatively low (as they were a year ago, before they increased by about 50 percent …), they can’t come close to matching the approximately $1 a gallon equivalent or less that most Vermonters who drive electric vehicles have access to from their electric utility. In fact, combining fuel and maintenance cost savings, rural EV drivers in Vermont stand to save over $1,500 a year, on average, based on a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report.

Total it all up and the savings for Vermonters associated with moving beyond fossil fuels and fossil fueled equipment ranges from a conservative estimate of about $50 million per year (Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development) to $973 million per year (Rewiring America). These savings can be achieved when, at every opportunity, we replace fossil fuel vehicles and heating systems that are at the end of their life with more efficient and technologically advanced electric and renewable alternatives, including electric vehicles, heat pumps for space and water heating, and advanced wood heating solutions (especially efficient pellet stoves and automated boilers). In some instances, existing oil heat systems with indoor fuel tanks can also simply switch to run on B100 biodiesel without requiring an equipment change out.

Helping more and more Vermonters use energy equipment powered or fueled by clean energy sources that cost less year after year can also ease strain on family and business budgets, helping free up money for other needs in tough economic times. And never again purchasing equipment that requires fossil fuel avoids locking in decades of cost and pollution that Vermont, Vermonters, and the climate can no longer afford.

Moving beyond fossil fuels means more energy freedom for Vermont. Efficient and clean energy alternatives, especially for transportation and home and building heating, also contribute to greater unity by helping to create a stronger Vermont economy with more and better paying jobs for Vermonters and lower energy expenses for Vermont consumers, year after year.

There is a Vermont way forward for our energy future, and it can be guided by our state motto. Together we can move beyond the fossil fuel dependence that undermines our shared values in favor of cleaner energy choices that truly advance freedom and unity.

Jared Duval serves as executive director of the Energy Action Network and lives in Montpelier. He is a member of the Vermont Climate Council, appointed to provide expertise in energy and data analysis. He previously served as economic development director at the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development and holds a Master in Public Affairs degree from Princeton University. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.