Vermont Gas to be Zero Emission by 2050

By JACK SUMMERSBY

COURTESY PHOTO
Vermont Gas Systems, in partnership with Middlebury College and Vanguard Renewables, started construction on an anaerobic digester at Goodrich Family Farm last summer that will produce renewable natural gas (RNG). The utility company plans increase its focus on RNG as part of its mission to become zero emission by 2050.

Vermont Gas Systems, the state’s sole provider of natural gas, announced a plan last year to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from their operations by 2050. The company also unveiled plans to double energy efficiency savings, outlined strategies to reduce home and business emissions and promised to continue sustainable partnerships in communities around the state. 

Vermont Gas is one of the state’s largest utility companies and serves about 50,000 customers in the residential and commercial sectors. Along with Green Mountain Power, Standard Solar and Northern New England Investment Company, Vermont Gas is owned by the Northern New England Energy Corporation (NNEEC), a subsidiary of Quebec-based company Énergir. 

While the 2050 emissions goal was the headline announcement from a press release on Nov. 14 last year, Vermont Gas also provided details on additional elements of its strategy to “transform the company.” The company has announced a “cornerstone strategy” to double energy efficiency savings by 2025. This task will be put into motion with the help of a $20 million investment. Much of this budget is expected to go toward home weatherization, which will improve heating efficiency so that local energy usage can be reduced. The average homeowner will save about $200 per year after weatherization, according to the press release.

“VGS has been a strong partner in supporting Vermonters with low and fixed incomes and we know they’ll continue to be,” said Jan Demers, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, in the VGS press release. “Weatherization is an important way to reduce costs for Vermonters. We appreciate this balanced approach to make steady environmental progress while pledging ongoing support for those who need it most.”

The plan also calls for an increased focus on renewable natural gas (RNG), which is produced by processing natural methane, derived from waste materials. By 2030, the company aims to have 20% of its retail customers using energy supplied by RNG, adding about 2% per year to steadily ramp up production. The gradual transition is also intended to keep costs low for consumers, according to the company. 

Vermont Gas explicitly mentioned its partnership with Middlebury College and Wellesley, Mass-based Vanguard Renewables in its November press release. An anaerobic digester is currently in production at Goodrich Family Farm in Salisbury to produce RNG, which will flow into a Vermont Gas pipeline. The College announced that the digester, the first of its kind, will provide energy to heat about half of its Vermont campus upon completion. President Laurie Patton applauded the program as a major leap toward the College’s goal of using 100% renewable energy sources — one of the goals in the Energy 2028 plan. 

“Another exciting aspect of the digester is how it further connects the College to the local community and Vermont,” said Laurie Patton in the press release. “The College’s interest in pursuing the facility also reflects our longstanding commitment to innovative environmental education and sustainability projects. Building on our carbon neutrality initiative, it will provide our students and faculty with new research and teaching opportunities.” 

The final components of Vermont Gas’s plan for sustainability include district energy systems (DES) and a “Net Zero Home” pilot program. District energy systems are networks of underground pipes that provide thermal energy to heat buildings more efficiently. Vermont Gas has planned one such system in Middlebury and another in Burlington in partnership with the Burlington Electric Department. 

Vermont Gas’s Net Zero Home pilot program is the final element of their long-term plan. It is a proposed incentive for residential customers to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint. The pilot is currently being co-developed with Burlington Electric and focuses on an “action plan” personalized to residential consumers. Such plans would include recommendations like weatherization, heat pump installation, renewable natural gas usage, electric vehicles and upgraded efficient equipment. 

Reactions to Vermont Gas’s strategy and pledged commitment have been mixed. Peter Walke, deputy secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, said that his agency welcomed the company’s announcement to reduce emissions, while the larger impact of the announcement is yet to be seen. 

“We want to understand the details more so we can understand what it might mean for direct emissions and other related policy matters,” Walke said. He also explained the importance of sustainable practices not addressed by Vermont Gas. “Other Vermont fuel suppliers have begun to diversify their products and services, primarily by introducing bio fuels and wood pellets,” Walke said. “These are great steps that need to be brought to scale.” 

In general, Walke expressed the need for “significant reductions in emissions across all sectors of the economy.” 

Middlebury resident and community advisor to the Sunday Night Environmental Group (SNEG) Fran Putnam expressed concerns with Vermont Gas’s announcement. “One thing about [Vermont Gas’s] advertising that I particularly object to is selling themselves as a way to lower customers’ carbon footprint,” said Putnam, who cited a New York Times article discussing the emissions of methane leaks at natural gas facilities. “In fact, some studies seem to show that because of the methane leaks from drilling and distilling as well as leaks along the pipelines, natural gas may have an even worse effect on the climate than oil.” On the utility company’s zero emission timeline, Putnam concluded that “2050 is far too late” and that 2030 would be a better projected date.

SNEG member and intended environmental studies major Victoria Andrews ‘23 explained that Vermont Gas’s plan is insufficient in  addressing pressing environmental issues. “By 2050, half of the species on the planet could be extinct and climate change’s effects could be irreversible,” she said. 

Andrews said that while Vermont Gas’s announcement is admirable, a “more aggressive” timeline is needed. When asked about additional sustainable solutions that corporations could pursue, she mentioned removing barriers to more renewable sources, implementing local environmental initiatives and incentivizing recycling and composting to reduce net carbon footprints. “Although these changes are small,” Andrews said, “I think basic routine shifts in the workplace can evolve to sweeping change and make business more environmentally friendly.”

After the company’s November press release, Vermont Gas’s President and CEO Don Rendall posted a New Year’s message for the company’s customers. “By 2030, we expect an annual reduction of over 187,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions as compared to our emissions today,” his message announced, adding that “we embrace this future, and we stand with our partners, old and new, in the fight against global climate change. Together, we believe, our future is bright.”