An effective economic recovery strategy should include at least three components: keep more money recirculating in-state; reduce Vermonters’ expenses; and create new, good-paying jobs for Vermonters. Transitioning off fossil fuels for how we get around and heat our homes can accomplish all three goals simultaneously.
Earlier this year the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) independently analyzed the Energy Action Network’s model of how Vermont can meet our commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. Using conservative assumptions, ACCD found that a rapid, large-scale shift from imported fossil fuels to more efficient and low-carbon sources (primarily electricity) for transportation and heating over the next 15 years could:
— Prevent more than $1.1 billion from draining out of the Vermont economy.
— Save Vermonters nearly $800 million.
— Create jobs by increasing in-state investment by over $300 million.
To seize this opportunity, we will need leadership from our federal and state governments — especially to ensure an equitable energy transition for lower and middle income Vermonters. But the responsibility also lies with individual consumers when purchasing any new energy equipment. Each of us can make this basic commitment: never buy another piece of fossil fueled equipment for which there is an affordable electric or renewable alternative (with rebates and offers from your electric utility, Efficiency Vermont, and state and federal programs, that is now more often true than not). Here’s why such a commitment is important:
During the past decade, Vermonters collectively spent an average of $2 billion a year on fossil fuels for transportation and heating. About 75%, or roughly $1.5 billion a year, left the Vermont economy. In contrast, when we spend our energy dollars on electricity, weatherization, or renewable heating sources like locally and sustainably sourced wood, a far higher share of dollars stays local (62 cents, 60 cents, and 80 cents of every dollar, respectively) and helps support jobs for our neighbors.
Efficient, renewable transportation and heating options can also save Vermonters money. For example, electric vehicles (EVs) require less maintenance than fossil vehicles and cost less to fuel — less than a dollar a gallon equivalent with Green Mountain Power and 60 cents a gallon equivalent with Burlington Electric Department.
The up-front cost of EVs has also dropped significantly in recent years: the average EV purchased in Vermont now costs less to buy or lease than the average new fossil vehicle (mid and full size average). And while fuel heating prices are temporarily at historic lows due to the pandemic, over time, propane and fuel oil have proven to be much more expensive and price-volatile than the low and predictable prices for electricity and wood heat.
When Vermonters use electricity, for an electric vehicle, heat pump, or otherwise, we draw on the lowest emitting power supply of any state in the country. As of 2019, Vermont’s electricity was 62% renewable and 92% carbon-free. That means we can make more of an impact in the fight against the climate crisis by switching to EVs, heat pump water heaters, or cold climate heat pumps than anywhere else in the country.
In these tough economic times, many Vermonters do not want to change a vehicle or heating system unless we have to. But, given the life cycles of this equipment, we know roughly 100,000 Vermonters will purchase a vehicle this year; roughly 25,000 will have to switch out their water heater; and about 12,500 will have to replace a heating system, one way or another. If you are in one of those situations, you can make the choice that is better for your pocketbook, your health, your local economy and our environment.
Specifically, if you are one of the approximately 35,000 Vermonters a year who buy or lease a new vehicle, prioritize making your next car an electric vehicle (EV). Alternatively, if you are one of the65,000 Vermonters who will buy a used vehicle, you can look for a used EV, hybrid, or the most fuel efficient fossil option you can find.
On the heating side, if you have to replace your water heater this year, commit to switching to a heat pump water heater. Or if you have to replace your heating system, commit to ending your use of fuel oil or propane and instead, opt for more efficient and renewable heating, such as with cold-climate heat pumps and/or advanced wood heating, depending on your situation. And if you need a new lawnmower, snowblower, weed wacker, or chain saw, choose one of the many electric options.
Clean energy jobs are a pillar of Vermont’s economy. Pre-pandemic, 6% of our workforce — approximately 19,000 Vermonters — were employed in the clean energy sector, the highest share of any state in the nation. On average, these are well-paying, family-supporting jobs (approx. $27/hour median wage vs. $19/hour statewide median wage). Worryingly, however, state estimates project a loss of 2,600 jobs in Vermont’s clean energy sector since March.
Vermont has an opportunity to bring those jobs back and create even more. With a comprehensive policy framework and the engagement of all Vermonters, we can build back better by seizing every opportunity to switch out fossil fueled vehicles and heating systems (where over 70% of our GHG pollution comes from) to more efficient and clean solutions. This is a win all around: it can keep much more of our money local; lower lifetime costs for Vermont consumers facing increasingly stretched budgets; save all electricity ratepayers money by efficiently using excess headroom in our transmission and distribution system; and help create good-paying jobs for our neighbors at a time of high unemployment. The responsibility — and the opportunity — lies with all of us.
Jared Duval is Energy Action Network executive director and former Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development economic development director.