Thermal Energy Ordinance

Burlington's thermal energy ordinance regulates the kinds of heating systems that can be installed in buildings across the city, and could be an important mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

 In late winter 2023, Stop VT Biomass campaigned to defeat Burlington Ballot Question 2, which asked voters to allow the City to impose a fee on new buildings and large, existing buildings that install fossil fuel rather than renewable heating. We campaigned against this question because it would in effect incentivize polluting biofuels by exempting them from the fee, and do so in a way that would be very hard to correct because a new ballot measure would be required to add biofuels to the fee. Ballot Question 2 passed in March 2023, and now we are campaigning for new policy to correct the biofuels loophole in the carbon pollution impact fee and account for polluting biofuels in other city climate policy. 

How We Got Here: A Timeline of Past Policy and Ordinances

September 9, 2019: Mayor Miro Weinberger, Burlington Electric Department (BED) General Manager Darren Springer, and others publicly released the City’s Net Zero Energy Roadmap.  The roadmap process was led by BED and was written by Synapse Energy Economics under contract from BED. The Roadmap announced a goal of reaching Net Zero Energy by 2030, but confusingly defined "Net Zero" as  "reducing and eventually eliminating fossil fuel use from the heating and ground transportation sectors.”  (Roadmap 1), rather than using the agreed-upon definition  of Net Zero as "a state in which the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of the atmosphere” (Net Zero Project, University of Oxford).

This nonsensical definition of Net Zero allows substitution of non-fossil fuel types of energy for fossil fuel energy to count toward meeting the Net Zero goal regardless of the non-fossil fuel energy’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Substituting non-fossil fuel energy for fossil fuel energy counts toward achieving the Net Zero Energy Goal, even if it results in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  This is precisely what happens when heating systems fueled by biomass, biofuels or “renewable” natural gas are substituted for fossil fuel heating systems, which in Burlington are primarily natural gas systems.  When these types of “renewable” energy are substituted for natural gas, greenhouse gas emissions increase, yet the City can claim credit toward meeting its Net Zero goal. The NZE roadmap continues to be used as a justification for promoting polluting biofuels like "renewable" gas and the district heat plan, with BED general manager Darren Springer telling elected officials as recently as 1/9/2024 that the city has to support polluting biofuels, because doing so is in accordance with the NZE Roadmap.

March 2, 2021: Burlington voters approved a change to the City’s charter that would allow the City to regulate thermal energy systems in residential buildings, including assessing and levying a carbon impact fee or alternative compliance payment, for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Voters also approved an advisory ballot question focused on providing equity in the development of such policies.  The charter change was required to be approved by the Vermont legislature.  In approving the charter change, the legislature required that any carbon impact or alternative compliance payment that the City desired to impose be approved by voters.

June 28, 2021: Burlington City council approved an ordinance, later signed by the Mayor, that requires a “primary renewable heating system” in new construction (Chapter 8, Article V, Section 8-78).  The ordinance defines a “renewable primary heating system" to include systems powered by electricity, wood pellets or wood chips, renewable gas, biodiesel, and renewable district heating, i.e. the McNeil district energy project (Section 8-77). This policy continues the false dichotomy between fossil fuels and polluting "renewable" sources, and falsely suggests that switching to polluting biofuels will reduce climate pollution. 

March 7, 2023: Burlington voters approve a charter change allowing the city to establish a "carbon pollution impact fee" on new buildings and large, existing commercial and industrial buildings over 50,000 sq. ft that install fossil fuel rather than renewable heating. This policy was designed by Burlington Electric Department as part of its deceptive "Net Zero Energy" Roadmap, and as part of the effort to build a steam pipe from McNeil to the UVMMC hospital (Mayor Weinberger remarked that with a carbon impact fee, the economics of the steam pipe would be a "slam dunk").  Stop VT Biomass campaigned to defeat this ballot question because the ballot question authorized the city to impose a fee on fossil fuel heating but not other polluting fuels, which would effectively incentivize polluting  biofuels in a way that would be impossible to correct without another ballot measure (which, in 2024, we are now pushing for).  Ballot question 2 passed on Town Meeting Day 2023, and subsequent events have confirmed our fears that the carbon pollution impact fee would leave a loophole for polluting biofuels. 

November 20, 2023: Despite opposition from an overwhelming majority of public comments, the city council passed the carbon pollution impact fee in ordinance form, authorizing a fee for fossil fuel heating but not on other climate-warming, polluting fuels. The city council also approved the proposed steam pipe ("district energy") project on the same day, despite widespread public opposition. 

December 19, 2023: Councilor Bergman introduces a charter change resolution to the Transportation, Energy, and Utilities Committee (TEUC) that would let voters decide whether to expand the carbon pollution impact fee to smaller buildings, increase the fee amount, and include all fuels that emit greenhouse gases. UVM, UVMMC, Vermont Gas, and the Burlington Business Association show up to voice their opposition to this measure. UVMMC says they have to suspend planning for the McNeil steam pipe project while there is so much uncertainty about changes to the ordinance.

January 9, 2024: TEUC passes two resolutions aimed at improving the thermal energy ordinance and refers them to the full council. The vote is 2-1 on both, with councilors Bergman and King in support and councilor Barlow opposed. One resolution would put a question on the March 5 ballot asking whether Burlington should add all fuels that emit greenhouse gases (i.e. polluting biofuels) to the existing carbon pollution impact fee. The other resolution would ask TEUC to study ways to improve the carbon pollution impact fee (including adding biofuels to the fee) and report back to the full council later in the Spring. Council President Karen Paul neglects to put these resolutions on the next city council agenda, delaying them two weeks until January 29.

January 29, 2024: The full city council will consider both resolutions passed out of TEUC on January 9. Stop VT Biomass strongly supports the March ballot item to add biofuels to the carbon pollution impact fee, or, if the council insists on delaying, supports a resolution asking TEUC to study the issue in time to get an item on the August ballot. Since President Paul delayed these agenda items, they are coming before the council only 1 day before the deadline for March ballot questions.