The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. Credit: Jonathanking / Wikimedia Commons

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Climate and clean energy groups are already laying the groundwork for their 2020 legislative strategy.

Vermont lawmakers made incremental progress this year on clean energy but did not enact significant new laws on the scale of nearby Maine or New York.

Next year, advocates say, there will be higher expectations and fewer excuses.

Turnover in the state legislature and the time needed to get up-to-speed on issues were cited as reasons the body failed to take the dramatic steps some were expecting. About 40 out of 180 members were new to the General Assembly this year. 

Lobbyists and legislators more familiar with the workings of Montpelier, the state capital, were less surprised.

“I was going into this session with the mindset that this is more of an educational time frame,” said Robb Kidd, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

Kidd said besides leadership changes, climate did not appear to be a top-tier agenda item. Despite several marches and demonstrations, particularly by students, lawmakers told Kidd they didn’t sense that the public outside of the activist community was particularly engaged on climate action.

Instead, lawmakers’ attention was divided by other high-profile issues such as abortion rights, minimum wage and paid family leave.

Democratic Rep. Curt McCormack, a former vice chair of the House Committee on Energy and Technology who now chairs the Transportation Committee, said new members needed time to get up to speed on the issues and learn how to work through the processes. Aside from the structural changes, he is frustrated by a lack of action.

“We don’t see a sense of urgency,” he said.

Emissions in Vermont have increased since 1990 despite the state’s efforts and climate-friendly reputation. Much of the backsliding is due to the 2014 closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

“There’s high expectations for more action on climate next session,” said Olivia Campbell Andersen, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont. “Next year there will be no reasons or no excuses for not doing stronger climate action.” 

She mentioned the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, which aims to create a “legally enforceable system by which Vermont will be able to reduce its economy-wide carbon emissions to zero by 2050.”

While the act failed to get out of committee, advocates say there was considerable testimony and interest in climate commitments beyond goal-setting. Vermont has a renewable portfolio standard of 90% by 2050.

“There is an overall frustration with a seeming lack of urgency of the legislature in meeting the commitments,” Andersen said. “The act would force accountability so the administration would have to comply, not just ignore it.”

Massachusetts in 2006 was the first New England state to pass such a bill. Connecticut followed a few years later, and Maine passed its version this year.

By Andersen’s count, about 57 clean energy and climate-related bills were introduced this session; four passed. The transportation bill, which annually provides funding for roads and infrastructure, was the means to create new incentives to decarbonize the sector.

A major change was the first-ever incentive for electric vehicles, with $1.2 million created for direct incentives for consumers.

There was also a 70% increase in funding for a home weatherization assistance program.

Other bills that were passed included promotions for advanced wood heating, an increase in the net metering customer cap for schools from 500 kilowatts to 1 megawatt, and shortened timelines for the Public Utility Commission to decide on uncontested permit applications.

Sen. Chris Pearson, a founding member of the legislature’s Climate Caucus, said the body shouldn’t be “patting itself on the back,” but accomplished more than it is getting credit for.

“I disagree with the premise that it was a disappointing year. We did more than we’ve ever done for climate,” he said. “We haven’t done enough to meet the deepening climate crisis, but we took bigger steps than ever since I arrived in 2006.”

Groundwork is already being laid for better outcomes next year. The Climate Caucus held a daylong strategy workshop a week after the legislative session ended.

“One goal is [identifying] policy ideas that are achievable and meaningful and to research what other states have done, so we can come back with a set of concrete proposals when we reconvene in January,” Pearson said.

Another goal is to get the newer and the more experienced committee members to work more closely together.

Pearson said another priority before the next session is to build a consensus of attainable goals — transportation, sustainability, efficiency, the Global Warming Solutions Act — and gain support from various stakeholders.

“Advocacy groups may have ideas of what they want, but they aren’t terribly realistic about how to get through the legislature,” Pearson said.

Bill Opalka

Bill is a freelance journalist based outside Albany, New York. As a former New England correspondent for RTO Insider, he has written about energy for newspapers, magazines and other publications for more than 20 years. He has an extensive career in trade publications and newspapers, mostly focused on the utility sector, covering such issues as restructuring, renewable energy and consumer affairs. Bill covers Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire and also compiles the Northeast Energy News daily email digest.