On March 8, 2023

Clean heat: Looking forward, thinking smart

By Sen. Chris Bray

Editor’s note: Christopher Bray of New Haven, represents Addison County in the state senate. He is the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, serves on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Joint Energy Committee, Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, and Joint Carbon Emissions Reduction Committee.

Vermonters are facing a heating emergency. 

All of us who heat primarily with heating oil or gas are seeing record high prices for the second winter in a row. These inflated prices have cost Vermonters an extra $650 million in just two years. That is more than $1,000 for every man, woman and child in the state.

Our heavy reliance on price-volatile fossil fuels has left many Vermonters struggling to pay their fuel bills, turning down their thermostats, layering up even at home, and living in uncomfortable conditions.

Our fossil fuel use also comes with a second cost — damage to our environment. Vermont has the highest level of greenhouse gas pollution per person in the Northeast. We are not as “green” as we might hope or think.

And Vermonters, who are rightly proud of our many commitments over the years to protect the beautiful environment we call home, want to do better and reduce pollution. In fact, our own laws require us to do better.

We can take steps to save money and reduce pollution or we can passively accept the status quo.

The Vermont I know and admire, when facing a challenge, always looks forward and finds new and better ways of doing things.

The Affordable Heat Act (AHA), currently under development in the Legislature, lays out a new and better way. 

This program, operating over the next 30 years, will help us wean ourselves from expensive, price-volatile fossil fuels, and increasingly use cleaner biofuels and cleanly-generated electricity to warm and even cool our homes and businesses.

The AHA will also, according to the Scott Administration’s Climate Action Office, save Vermonters an estimated $6.4 billion. 

What is holding us back? Fear and misinformation. 

Fear of change is natural, and we can work through this by patiently learning together how to do things in new ways. And misinformation is best addressed by correcting the record, using balanced and accurate information, not just the information circulated by parties with vested interests. 

Let’s pause to ask ourselves, “Who benefits from the status quo and record high fuel prices?”

Not Vermonters.

With no fossil fuel industry in Vermont, 75 cents of every dollar we spend on fossil fuels leaves our state. The high prices we are paying right now for fuels ultimately go to global oil companies — companies that are currently reporting astounding, record earnings ($200 billion in 2022). Meanwhile, our local fuel dealers get no share of these windfall profits, and working Vermonters, retirees and fixed-income families are stuck paying high prices.

Of course, Big Oil does not want you to question their profits. And right now, Vermonters are being barraged with messages to divert attention from the high costs you are experiencing today and telling you to worry instead about the unverified future price impacts of the Affordable Heat Act. TV ads are making unsubstantiated claims, and the claims are making many Vermonters understandably anxious.  

My colleagues and I have listened to you and your concerns, and as a result we have revised the bill to address the concerns you have shared.

We have converted S.5 into a study. As revised, S.5 will, over the next two years, research the clean heat program in detail and carefully assess its design, implementation and costs, BUT the bill does not take the program “live.” That step will now require a vote of the full legislature in 2025, after the study is complete.

We are assuming nothing. We are evaluating everything. And we will not proceed until we have solid analysis to ensure that the program will do just what we intend it to do: save Vermonters money while also reducing emissions.

When we are ready to proceed, here is what we stand to gain: we can assert our energy independence and loosen the grip of global oil companies by “going local” — investing in weatherization and conservation, installing heating appliances powered by clean electricity, and using sustainably harvested wood and biofuels. The electricity, wood, and biofuels can be produced here, not halfway around the world. 

The Legislature’s top goal is to make the transition to clean energy as affordable as possible for all Vermonters — with special money-saving provisions for low- and moderate-income Vermonters, who are currently feeling the sting of high energy costs. Big Oil is not going to help us. We are going to have to help ourselves. 

So, here’s our choice: We can stay shackled to costly, polluting fossil fuels (our past), or we can pass the AHA and start working out the details of how to make the transition to clean, locally produced energy (our future). The Vermont I know will look forward and think smart — and I look forward to doing this work with you.

Affordable heat act essentials

Customer participation in the Affordable Heat Act’s programs is entirely voluntary. No customer is required to do anything. Not switch fuels. Not install a cold climate heat pump. Nothing.

If you choose to participate, the program will help pay for measures to reduce your fossil fuel use, such as weatherizing your home or purchasing heat pumps or advanced wood heating.

If you burn oil today, the AHA provides a paid option to continue to burn oil , if you like.

The bill will allow fuel dealers to continue to sell the same fuels.

Fuel dealers who do not import fuel into the state will not be obligated to participate.

This is a decades-long program for the gradual transformation of the way we heat our homes and businesses; the program will run, at a minimum, from 2026 through 2050.

The governor’s Climate Action Office estimates $6.4 billion in savings through the program for the period 2026–2050.

Today’s boilers can already burn up to 20% biofuel and can be modified to use even higher levels.

The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is not just a “good idea”— it is also the law.

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