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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Vermont Reinstates Ban on Utility Shutoffs During Pandemic

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2020 at 5:44 PM

A Green Mountain Power meter. - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • A Green Mountain Power meter.
Vermont regulators announced Tuesday afternoon that they would reinstate a moratorium on utility shutoffs during the ongoing state of emergency caused by the pandemic.

The Public Utility Commission restored the moratorium following the expiration of a state program that offered more than $8 million in financial aid to people who had fallen behind on their power, water, gas, internet and phone bills.

“Vermonters need to be able to keep the lights on, their homes warm, and their phone lines open as they survive the winter months of the pandemic,” PUC chair Anthony Roisman said in a statement.

The original March 18 ban on utility shutoffs, part of a suite of emergency rules passed during the early days of the pandemic, came at a time when stay-at-home orders were in effect.

Regulators lifted the ban on October 15 in an effort to steer people toward the financial aid available through the Vermont COVID-19 Arrearage Assistance Program. Lawmakers dedicated $8.8 million in federal relief dollars toward the aid program, which was due to end on December 15 but was extended a week.

Regulators say lifting the moratorium helped more people get the financial assistance they needed. A total of 10,630 people received relief from the program as of December 15, and a few hundred more applications have been processed since then, according to the Department of Public Service, which advocates for ratepayers.

A number of organizations, including Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, argued for the reinstatement of the moratorium, citing the recent spike in infections and predictions of a difficult winter ahead.

“The case could not be clearer that the temporary halt of involuntary utility disconnections must be reinstated immediately and continue through the duration of the state of emergency,” David Koeninger, deputy director of Vermont Legal Aid, wrote in a petition filed with the PUC.

Without the ban, Vermonters “could be driven into unsafe situations that may include seeking refuge with friends or family in violation of the statewide ban on multi-household gatherings, which could in turn contribute to a worsening of the pandemic,” Ben Edgerly Walsh, director of VPIRG’s Climate & Energy Program, wrote in support of reinstatement.

It’s unclear if the latest $900 billion in federal stimulus funding will include additional financial aid for utility customers behind on their bills.

Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, and others have pledged not to disconnect customers during the pandemic — with or without a moratorium. As of December 14, more than 6,500 GMP customers had benefited from the assistance program, according to the utility, which supports the moratorium reinstatement.

Another 27,100 GMP customers remain 60 or more days behind in their payments, totaling $14 million. Burlington Electric said 2,865 customers were more than 30 days behind on their bills, but the utility reported no shutoffs during the pandemic.

Some utilities worry that expanding the moratorium without additional financial aid will result in more and more customers getting behind on their bills this winter, then owing sums they can’t afford to pay. Despite the moratorium, customers will still need to pay unpaid power bills.

The Vermont Public Power Supply Authority, which represents 11 town-owned electric utilities, argued the moratorium “would not be in our customers’ long-term best interests.”

Its members “remain concerned that the Moratorium acts as a disincentive for customers to communicate with their utilities about unpaid balances and will result in customers accruing balances that they are ultimately unable to pay.”

In its statement, the PUC stressed the need for customers to work with their utilities on payment plans to avoid building up unmanageable balances or being disconnected when the moratorium ends.

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Monday, December 21, 2020

Vermont Is Not Joining the Transportation and Climate Initiative

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2020 at 5:44 PM

Accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles is one goal of the Transportation Climate Initiative. - TRANSPORTATION CLIMATE INITIATIVE
  • Transportation Climate Initiative
  • Accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles is one goal of the Transportation Climate Initiative.
Gov. Phil Scott is not yet ready to sign Vermont up for a multi-state agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, despite it being a decade in development.

Officials in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., on Monday pledged to join the regional compact known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Eight states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic area, including Vermont, signed a related document pledging to stay involved in the planning process but opting not to join the program at this time.

Scott has long expressed concern that the agreement would force Vermonters to pay more for gas, which has only deepened during the pandemic, said Peter Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, who has represented Vermont in TCI discussions.

Scott also wants to monitor initiatives by the incoming administration in Washington and the work of the new Vermont Climate Council before committing to the compact as it is now structured, Walke said.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

University of Vermont Announces Plan to Divest From Fossil Fuels

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2020 at 5:34 PM

The University of Vermont campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The University of Vermont campus
After years of pressure from students and activists, the University of Vermont has announced plans to phase out investments in fossil fuel companies.

UVM's board of trustees on Tuesday endorsed a plan that will prevent any new fossil fuel investments and require the university to cease any existing commitments in the coming years. At a press conference following the vote, president Suresh Garimella said the decision "marked an important milestone" in the university's long-standing leadership on environmental issues.

"By voting today to divest the university's endowment of fossil fuel investments, we're extending a tradition of significant and decisive steps the university has taken that set UVM apart," Garimella said.

Fossil fuel companies comprise about 6.7 percent of UVM's $536 million endowment portfolio, including direct, commingled and private investments.
Student activists have repeatedly argued that UVM's financial support of the worst contributors to climate change undermines its commitment to sustainability.

But trustees have resisted the demands and rejected several proposals over the years on the argument that divestment would limit the endowment's potential growth and jeopardize the university's financial future. 

“Our primary responsibility is to protect the endowment,” David Daigle, a former border member, said in 2013 when the board shot down a divestment proposal, the Burlington Free Press reported. "My continuing fear is that this proposal would have a significant impact on the ability to balance the risks and rewards within the endowment by cutting out a substantial portion of the economy.”

The university has defended its investment portfolio by highlighting other sustainable efforts, such as its Clean Energy Fund, which campus leaders say has contributed more than $1.5 million in dozens of green campus projects. 

But critics weren't satisfied. Last year, student activists formed a group called Organize UVM that has continued to demand the university divest, bringing more than 100 people out to a January board meeting.

In response, UVM trustees created the Sustainability Work Group to explore the concept further. The group met four times since March and received more than 420 public comment submissions prior to adopting its recommendations, which the trustees approved on Tuesday. 

As part of the pledge, the university will immediately end new direct investments in fossil fuels, fully divest from any public fossil fuel investments by July 2023 and allow any pre-existing, multi-year private investments to lapse. UVM stopped acquiring the latter in 2017, and trustee Ron Lumbra estimated the final commitment should expire by the end of the decade, though  the vast majority of investments will be ended within the next three years.

The board will also ask fund managers to "factor the financial risks of climate change into their investment decision-making process," according to a press release.

UVM joins three other Vermont colleges — Goddard, Sterling and Middlebury — that have committed to divestment, a step taken by more than 1,000 organizations worldwide, according to gofossilfree.org.

At his press conference, Garimella commended students for their continued advocacy. "I'm really proud of the way they approached this issue in a constructive — and therefore, I think, effective — fashion," Garimella said.

Lumbra agreed. "The board appreciates all the research they conducted and their sincere effort to understand the full complexity of the issue," he said.

At the same time, the trustee acknowledged that financial considerations factored heavily into the decision. He said the long-term outlook of fossil fuel stocks have become bleak due in part to the rise of the green economy, which has in turn offered new and profitable ways to invest in sustainable companies.

"The world's changed," Lumbra said. "The opportunity for us to divest now, and do it in the right way, and keep the mission of the university focused on the environment, all came together at this time." 

Organize UVM noted the board's vote in an Instagram post that praised the efforts of both current and former students.

"This could not have happened without each and every 3k+ of you who signed our petition, came to a board meeting, a regular meeting, posted, emailed a board member, or showed your support in any way," reads the post. "It also would not have happened without the 10+ years of fossil fuel divestment movements before this one."

Noting that UVM remains "far from perfect," the group vowed to continue its efforts.

"But for now, we celebrate," the group wrote. "Thank you all for fighting to protect our planet!"

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Green Mountain Power Asks to Delay Rate Increase

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2020 at 4:52 PM

Nick Stanhope checking the status of one of Green Mountain Power's grid-level batteries. - FILE: KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • File: Kevin McCallum
  • Nick Stanhope checking the status of one of Green Mountain Power's grid-level batteries.

Vermont’s largest electricity provider, Green Mountain Power, has asked regulators to delay its April 1 rate increase due to the coronavirus' impact on customers.

The utility was planning a 2.7-percent increase in rates to reflect rising costs, including for storm damage and power purchases.

But the company is looking into “deferring or delaying” that increase until July 1, according to Ed McNamara, planning director for the Vermont Department of Public Service.

McNamara mentioned the possibility during a conference call with lawmakers Tuesday. GMP officials made the request with the Public Utility Commission on Monday. 

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Senate Supports 10-Year Extension for Biomass Plant

Posted By on Wed, Mar 11, 2020 at 8:47 PM

The Senate Finance Committee - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • The Senate Finance Committee

A biomass energy plant in northeastern Vermont would get a 10-year lease on life under a bill moving through the state Senate, despite concerns about the plant’s efficiency and carbon emissions.

The 20-megawatt facility in rural Ryegate burns 250,000 tons of wood chips per year from trees in Vermont and New Hampshire forests. Utilities in Vermont are required to purchase its electricity at highly subsidized rates.

But that long-term power contract with the state is up in 2022. Lawmakers are seeking to ensure that the plant — which employs 20 people and pumps $7 million annually into the local forest products industry — can continue to operate for at least another decade.

The plant enjoys about $5 million annually in rate subsidies, which equals $50 million over the life of the current contract, according to the Department of Public Service. Biomass plants in New Hampshire have shuttered in recent years after subsidies were revoked and the plants couldn't compete with cheaper energy sources.

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Vermont House Approves a Key Climate Bill

Posted By on Thu, Feb 20, 2020 at 8:13 PM

Thomas Ely, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, speaking in support of the Global Warming Solutions Act - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Thomas Ely, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, speaking in support of the Global Warming Solutions Act
A sweeping climate change bill meant to force Vermont to hit its ambitious emission-reduction targets or else face lawsuits from citizens won preliminary approval in the House by a wide margin Thursday.

Legislators favored the Global Warming Solutions Act by a vote of 105 to 37 — a strong showing for a bill that Republican Gov. Phil Scott has warned would put the state in unnecessary legal jeopardy.

Supporters praised H.688 as leverage to ensure that the state meets emission-reduction targets that it has missed for years.

“(The bill) creates a strong and effective path to cut pollution and will increase climate resilience for all of our communities,” said Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Cost of Boosting Renewable Energy Mandate Gives Senators Pause

Posted By on Wed, Feb 19, 2020 at 4:56 PM

Developer Joe Larkin at a South Burlington solar farm - FILE: ROBERT NICKELSBERG
  • File: Robert Nickelsberg
  • Developer Joe Larkin at a South Burlington solar farm
A plan to speed up Vermont’s adoption of renewable energy is hitting headwinds over concerns about potentially enormous costs.

Senators seem to support a bill that would require electric utilities to get all of their power from renewable sources by 2030. The state’s renewable energy standard already calls for them to reach 75 percent renewable by 2032. So the new benchmark seemed manageable to members of the Senate Finance Committee.

But the bill’s call to double — from 10 percent to 20 percent — the amount of renewable energy that utilities would have to purchase from new Vermont sources like solar seemed to be a bridge too far for some senators.

Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), who chairs the committee, cautioned members that the requirement was causing some utilities — and her — concern over potential cost hikes.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

Burlington Announces Scaled-Down District Energy Plan

Posted By on Mon, Feb 17, 2020 at 4:00 AM

Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station
The City of Burlington announced Thursday that it will move forward with its long-envisioned district energy system, albeit a highly scaled-back version.

The city has signed a letter of agreement with the University of Vermont Medical Center, Vermont Gas and consultant Ever-Green Energy to explore a $16 million system that would power hospital buildings with steam generated from the Joseph C. McNeil biomass plant.

The previous proposal would have cost an estimated $40 million and counted 16 potential customers, including the University of Vermont, CityPlace Burlington and Hotel Vermont.
Despite the smaller size, the city touted the proposal as a "significant step" toward Burlington's goal of becoming a net zero energy city by 2030.

"It is exciting that, for the first time in 35 years of exploring such a system, we are advancing to the stage of detailed engineering and economic analysis," Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a press release. "While much work remains, today's news represents a major breakthrough."

The new proposal is a "material departure" from the former plan, according to an agreement letter released by the city. For one, the system will use steam instead of hot water to create thermal energy, and without UVM or CityPlace, it has a "significantly reduced starting footprint," the letter says.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Emission Compact Would Hike Gas Prices, Fuel Green Investments

Posted By on Wed, Dec 18, 2019 at 5:00 PM

Charging up - COURTESY OF THE TRANSPORTATION CLIMATE INITIATIVE
  • Courtesy of the Transportation Climate Initiative
  • Charging up
Vermonters would pay higher gas prices over the next decade but be better off financially if they were to join a 12-state effort to cap greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and invest in greener alternatives.

That’s the conclusion of a report released Tuesday by the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a group of Northeast and mid-Atlantic states working to create a “cap-and-invest” program for gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers.

“This program would lead to significant progress in meeting Vermont’s emission-reduction commitments,” said Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

There are 52 million registered vehicles in the District of Columbia and the 12 states exploring such a program. Transportation accounts for 44 percent of the region's carbon dioxide emissions, according to the group.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

Water Quality Trumps Hydro Power in Vermont Supreme Court Case

Posted By on Mon, Nov 25, 2019 at 4:24 PM

Dam on the Green River - FILE
  • File
  • Dam on the Green River
A Vermont Supreme Court decision upholding tighter water-quality regulations for a power company’s hydroelectric facilities could have wide implications on hydro projects around the state and nation, environmental advocates said.

The court on Friday upheld a decision by the state Agency of Natural Resources to require Morrisville Water & Light to operate three dams on the Lamoille and Green rivers in a way that made more water available for trout and other species.

The five justices rejected a lower environmental court’s attempt to balance the needs for better fish habitat with the power company’s desire to keep the long-standing dams economically viable.

“This is a really clear and strong decision that I think will be cited across the country,” Jon Groveman, policy and water director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said in an interview Monday.

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