On March 8, 2023

Vt. Senate passes Affordable Heat Act 

By John Flowers/Addison County Independent

Editor’s note: Bill Heffernan is a brother-in-law to reporter John Flowers.

Faced with widespread concerns about potential costs to fossil-fuel dealers and consumers, the authors of the proposed Affordable Heat Act have decided to pump the brakes on the design and approval timetable for the bill.

But they still aim to pass sweeping legislation that aims to bend the curve on climate change in Vermont through major investments in weatherization and the transition to green heating systems in homes and businesses.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison County, told the Independent on Tuesday, Feb. 28 that the Affordable Heat Act — also known as AHA or bill S.5 — will be converted into a two-year study. The Senate passed the bill on a 19-10 vote on March 3. The bill will now head to the House of Representatives.

“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,’” Bray said a Legislative Report that appears on Page 7A of this edition. “That step will now require a vote of the full Legislature in 2025, after the study is complete.”

The tipping point for S.5 apparently came following Addison County legislative breakfast, held at Bristol American Legion Post 19 on Monday, Feb. 27. That gathering featured representatives of several local heating fuel companies who vented their frustrations about S.5.

As originally crafted, S.5 called for, among other things, establishing a Clean Heat Standard that would’ve required importers of fossil heating fuels into Vermont to reduce pollution over time — in line with a Vermont law called the Global Warming Solutions Act.

To meet that standard, fossil fuel importers would have been asked to help subsidize cleaner heat options — primarily for low- and middle-income Vermonters — such as weatherization and heat pumps.

At its core, the AHA is intended to expedite the state’s transition to its new Global Solution Act mandate. Passed in 2020, that law requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, and 80% below 1990 standards by 2050.

Bray’s report in this edition includes an overview of AHA’s objectives.

It remains to be seen how those objectives will be overhauled or tweaked during a two-year study phase.

“The clean heat program in the Affordable Heat Act will not go into effect unless a future Legislature introduces a new bill to implement a clean heat program,” Bray wrote in a Feb. 28 email to Bill Heffernan, an owner of Champlain Valley Plumbing & Heating and one of the fuel dealers present at Monday’s breakfast.

“The study the bill includes will determine the costs and benefits of a possible clean heat program in much more detail,” Bray further stated in the email, provided to the Independent. “And it will be the work of a future Legislature to decide whether or not the program — as is, or modified in some way(s), should be moved forward by a new bill that will, of course, require a vote of the full Legislature.”For the second week in a row, the AHA was the dominant issue at the county’s twice-per-month legislative breakfast.

Bray underscored the reasons behind the law.

“In the last two winters, Vermonters have spent roughly $650 million more to heat than just two seasons prior,” Bray said, referring to recent, record-high heating fuel prices. “The current system is very expensive for many people, and it’s also polluting.”

He said plans called for S.5 to be patterned after Efficiency Vermont, a 20-year-old state utility that helps Vermonters make electricity-related upgrades to their homes and businesses.

“The AHA puts us on a roughly 30-year path to gradually transitioning off those fuels and help make the transition as affordable as possible for Vermonters across the board — especially those with low and moderate incomes,” he said.

Bray noted on Monday that the state has already completed 12 studies with another four in the works on options to battle climate change. And that battle is not optional, he said.

“Regardless of how you feel about it, Vermont law specifies a legally binding schedule for us to reduce pollution over time, through 2050,” he said.

“We don’t have a choice to sit it out.”

Fuel dealers speak 

But heating fuel dealers on Monday, Feb. 27 voiced concern that they — and their customers — would be asked to bear the financial impacts of the AHA.

Pat Shaw, a CVPH employee who regularly delivers heating fuel, questioned the AHA’s encouragement of biofuels — particularly during the winter when they pose challenges for conventional heating systems. He added any tax on heating fuel would be difficult to assess, given large networks of meters at apartment complexes. And he suggested the Legislature should have looked harder at the implications of the Global Solutions Act before passing it in 2020.

“You wrote a law a few years back that you don’t want to break today,” he said. “And now, because your backs are against the wall, you’re making the rest of us here pay for it.”

Heffernan said he had several concerns about S.5:

“No one can tell us what the bill is going to cost the fuel dealers,” he said, “but in reality, it will be Vermonters who pay.”

How the bill would be enforced/regulated

How the collected funds would be distributed, “and by whom.”

How the state would find the workforce needed for S.5’s weatherization objectives. He pointed to recent testimony from the Energy Action Network estimating Vermont would need 5,200 workers to be able to weatherize the 90,000 homes targeted for such upgrades by 2030.

“My biggest concern is that this bill directly or indirectly affects all Vermonters,” he said. “Hospitals, schools, colleges, churches, municipal buildings, greenhouses heated for food — these buildings can’t easily be converted to electricity or wood. These heating gallons are considered in figures the state senators are using and probably account for half, if not more of the gallons in the thermal sector. We don’t believe the power grid would be able to handle these buildings if they were converted, the rates charged by the power companies would be substantial.”

Others saluted the effort, however. Among them was former state Rep. Dave Sharpe, who said “millions and millions of Vermonters’ dollars are going to enhanced oil company profits… that are costing us more and more. I applaud the efforts of the Legislature in moving us toward spending less money on fossil fuels derived from out of state that are enhancing the pockets of large oil companies.”

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison County, said she’s a strong supporter of the AHA. The Legislature, she said, has spent three years trying to pass (and have Gov. Phil Scott sign) legislation targeting climate change and weatherization.

“(S.5) has wide support among legislators,” she told the crowd at Monday’s breakfast. “Everyone who has had concerns has had an opportunity to come to the table and work on this bill.”

She added several business sectors have already changed their operations in light of climate change and believes the heating fuel industry should follow suit. She specifically cited farmers, sugarmakers and the ski industry as industries that have worked to adapt.

“They’ve had to adjust what they do, what they pay for and how they work in order to adjust to the fact our winters are shorter and warmer, to adjust to storms and weather events that are unpredictable, and flooding,” she said. “These businesses have had to change. And all this bill does is ask that the fuel dealers become… part of the solution.”

Others at Monday’s breakfast urged lawmakers to consider additional routes to green energy.

Bristol’s Richard Butz advocated for “network geothermal” technology that he said could loop clusters of buildings into a communal geothermal heating. Such a system might work well in downtown Bristol, he said.

Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, agreed, while noting she’s a sponsor of a related bill — H.242 — that proposes to give the

Vermont Public Utility Commission jurisdiction over the construction and operation of utility model thermal energy networks.

“The beauty of this is, is that it’s much less expensive than traditional heating systems,” Butz said.

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