Information about Charter Change on Thermal Energy Systems

On the ballot for Town Meeting Day, March 2, 2021, Burlington voters will have the opportunity to vote on a change to the City Charter that would allow the City Council: “To regulate thermal energy systems in residential and commercial buildings, including assessing carbon impact or alternative compliance payments, for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the city; no assessment of carbon impact or alternative compliance payment shall be imposed unless previously authorized by a majority of the legal voters of said city voting on the question at any annual or special city meeting duly warned for the purpose.”

There have been a number of steps leading up to this Charter Change proposal, including:

  • September 2019: Mayor Weinberger announced the goal of Burlington becoming a Net Zero Energy city by 2030. In September 2019, the City and Burlington Electric Department published a Net Zero Energy Roadmap that outlines policy changes and other strategies for the City to meet this goal. According to the Roadmap, building energy use currently is the largest single source of emissions in Burlington. The City Council adopted both the Net Zero Energy goal and the Roadmap.
  • October 2019: The City began working to develop further strategies to decarbonize the heating of new buildings.
  • May 2020: The City Council endorsed the City's work to develop policy proposals to decarbonize the heating of new buildings, and passed a resolution directing the Administration to develop a policy proposal that would include consideration of a ban on new buildings connecting to fossil fuel infrastructure for thermal needs.
  • May-October 2020: The City held a well-attended virtual public meeting about this proposal, consulted with building developers, and sought technical assistance from the Building Electrification Initiative that included a review of building energy policies in other communities.
  • October 2020: Mayor Weinberger introduced a "Building Electrification and Carbon Price Ordinance" to create two pathways to incentivize new development to use efficient and electric power for heating needs. According to the proposal released at the time: "In pathway one, a new building does not connect to fossil fuel infrastructure and, therefore, no further requirements apply during the permit process. In pathway two, the new building connects to fossil fuel infrastructure and, therefore, the owner would pay a “building carbon fee” of $100 per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent to the expected emissions for the first 10 years of building operation."
  • December 2020: After further review, the City Attorney's Office determined that the City needed additional Charter authority to assess a fee tied to carbon impact. As a result, on December 14, the City Council approved, by a 10-2 vote, sending a "Charter Change regarding the Regulation of Thermal Energy Systems in Residential and Commercial Buildings" to Burlington voters on the Town Meeting Day ballot.


Frequently asked questions and responses regarding this Charter Change:

Q: Why is the City pursuing this Charter Change?

A: Building energy use is the largest single source of carbon emissions in Burlington. With this Charter Change, the City is asking the State for the authority to assess a carbon impact or alternative compliance fee as an option in regulating thermal energy systems. Then, if the State grants the City this authority by approving this Charter Change, the City would develop a policy proposal and bring it back to Burlington voters to approve through a second vote on a future ballot question. The goal is that the City could use a price-based system like a carbon impact or alternative compliance fee to as an option for regulating buildings – starting with new construction – to ensure that they are designed to use renewable energy for heating, which avoid costly future retrofits and reduce fossil fuel use in Burlington.

Q: Why focus on buildings?

A: Buildings burn fossil fuels, predominately for heating, hot water, and thermal energy use. Thermal energy represents more than one-quarter of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the transportation sector. Buildings can use renewable fuels such as Burlington’s 100 percent renewable electricity (generated by biomass, hydro, wind, and solar), instead of fossil fuels, to provide heating and hot water to Burlingtonians by using highly efficient technologies such as cold-climate heat pumps. Additionally, other renewable fuels, such as renewable gas, biodiesel, and biomass also can reduce fossil fuel use.

Q: Would the Charter Change impose new taxes on homeowners, renters, or businesses?

A: No. The Charter Change language does not seek to impose any new taxes or fees. Instead, it asks the State for the authority to assess a carbon impact or alternative compliance fee in the future, as a way for buildings to meet thermal energy system requirements. Any policy change that included the assessment of such a fee would take effect only if approved by Burlingtonians through a future vote. The City’s immediate focus would be on bringing forward such a proposed policy that related to new buildings, not existing buildings.

Q: Does the Charter Change allow for a carbon tax in Burlington?

A: No. The proposed Charter Change does not allow for a carbon tax. Rather Burlington would be asking the State for authority to develop a plan – which City voters would approve through a second vote in the future – to allow building owners to pay an alternative compliance or carbon assessment fee as one way to meet thermal energy system requirements for buildings. The plan would offer alternatives to a fee to meet City policy goals, including upgrading energy efficiency and installing renewable heating and thermal systems in buildings to reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use. Again, the City’s focus currently is on policies related to new, not existing, buildings.

Q: Would the Charter Change require Burlingtonians to switch their current heating systems?

A: No. The Charter Change does not require such a switch. Rather, it would give the City the authority to develop a proposal to regulate thermal energy systems. Burlington voters would then consider this specific policy proposal in a second, future vote. This policy would be designed to regulate emissions from fossil fuel heating and hot water systems. The City’s first area of focus is to ensure that new buildings are designed to use renewable energy for heating so that these new buildings are compatible with our long-term Net Zero Energy and climate goals, avoiding costly future retrofits and reducing fossil fuel use in Burlington.

Q: When the City regulates heating systems, will those regulations require the installation of electric heat? Didn’t Burlingtonians switch from electric heat to natural gas a few decades ago?

A: The City is not requiring a switch to any particular heating system or encouraging the transition of heating systems to the old, costly, resistance electric heat found in buildings decades ago. Rather, new policy proposals could support switching to modern, efficient renewable heating sources. These sources include high-efficiency, cold climate heat pumps, which hundreds of Burlingtonians already are installing to heat homes and buildings, and which work even at temperatures well below zero degrees. Cold climate heat pumps are far more efficient and less costly to operate than the old resistance electric heat, and, as a bonus, they also provide efficient and reliable air conditioning during our increasingly warm summers. Other renewable options may include efficient electric heating from ground-source heat pumps (already in use at places like Champlain College, the Sustainability Academy, C.P. Smith and J.J. Flynn elementary schools, and the new Hula office complex), modern wood pellet heating, and conventional heating systems utilizing renewable fuels such as renewable gas, biodiesel, or biomass.

Q: Will increased electric use increase our electric rates?

A: Analysis filed with the Public Utility Commission by Burlington Electric Department as part of its Integrated Resource Plan demonstrates that, while grid upgrades eventually may be needed to reach the Net Zero Energy goals as we electrify our heating and transportation needs, the Net Zero Energy effort, when compared with business as usual, could have a significant, positive economic benefit (in the form of reduced rate pressure) for all Burlington ratepayers. Further, Energy Action Network analysis shows that, for every dollar spent on fossil fuels in Vermont, only a quarter of that money stays in the Vermont economy, while we ship $1.5 billion out-of-state to purchase fossil fuels. In contrast, 62 cents of every dollar spent on electricity stays in the Vermont economy. Therefore, using Burlington’s 100 percent renewable electricity to meet more of our heating and transportation needs offers a unique opportunity to buy local with our energy dollars. 

Q: Where does Burlington's electricity come from? Is it really sustainable?

A: In 2014, Burlington became the first city in the country to generate 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy. In 2018 this electricity was generated 34% from biomass, 16% from large hydro, 13.5% from small hydro, 27% from wind, and 1.5% from solar. See the following links for more information on where our electricity comes from, sustainability at the McNeil Generating Station, and BED's local and renewable forestry practices. In 2019, Burlington was named the top city in the Northeastern U.S. and fourth in the country for solar per capita by Environment America, and performed similarly in the 2020 rankings.

For additional information about this proposed Charter Change, please see a discussion about this item recorded by Town Meeting TV.