Vermont House advances bill that would let utilities help homeowners save on heat



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MONTPELIER, Vermont — The Vermont House has advanced a wide-ranging bill that pushes utilities beyond electricity to help customers save on heat and could resolve criticism that the current state program to promote renewable energy double counts its results.

Supporters say the bill would move Vermont from the back of the pack — the five other New England states already have the renewable energy requirements the bills calls for — to the front, by adding language calling for utilities to help customers cut consumption of home heating oil and other carbon-emitting fuels.

The Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation — or RESET — program would end a current program under which wind farms and other renewable energy projects have been allowed to meet in-state goals for construction of such projects, while at the same time transferring their carbon-reducing attributes to out-of-state utilities through the sale of renewable energy credits.

Critics say the credits allow utilities in other states to meet those states' renewable energy standards without building as many renewable projects of their own as they otherwise would have to, and fear has been growing that other states could enact laws or regulations to stop their utilities from buying the Vermont renewable energy credits, known as RECS.

"Vermont needs a renewable portfolio standard now because the viability of Vermont's RECS has been put into question," said Rep. Rebecca Ellis, D-Waterbury, who described the bill to her House colleagues.

She said once Vermont had its own standard like those in other states, its utilities could continue to sell RECS when they've met Vermont's standard and have some to spare.

Vermont's new requirement would be that utilities get 55 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2017, ramping up to 75 percent by 2032. Some have met or exceeded those goals already, since Vermont gets big chunks of power from hydroelectric dams, which are considered renewable, as well as biomass plants, like the wood chip-burning McNeil power plant in Burlington.

The last two letters in the RESET acronym stand for "energy transformation," which state and utility officials say is getting underway as homeowners switch from fossil fuels to new, efficient, cold-weather heat pumps.

Goals separate from the renewable portfolio standard would be set for utilities to promote "distributed generation" — solar and other small power generators installed by homeowners and businesses; and heating systems using heat pumps, biomass and tightening buildings with insulation and other weatherization techniques.

The bill, which has Gov. Peter Shumlin's support, won preliminary House approval on a voice vote Friday. It's up for final passage when lawmakers return from their Town Meeting break March 10, and then goes to the Senate.

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