The state of Vermont is home to 647,000 hardy souls. The state’s population skews heavily toward progressive ideas. It is home to the irascible Bernie Sanders and has more Subarus and Volvos per capita than any other state. It also has long winters that Vermonters have traditionally survived by burning heating oil, propane, kerosene, and wood. In fact, emissions from its boilers, furnaces, kerosene heaters, and wood stoves represent 36% of the state’s total emissions, according to the latest findings by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
Vermont is also firmly committed to reducing its carbon footprint, and one of the ways of doing that is to transition away from all those oil-fired boilers. propane furnaces, kerosene heaters, and wood stoves. For several years, the Vermont legislature has been trying to find ways to do just that. This year it passed the Affordable Heat Act (S.5) bill.
That legislation as introduced, said,
“To meet the greenhouse gas emission reductions required by (state law), Vermont needs to transition away from its current carbon-intensive building heating practices to lower carbon alternatives. It also needs to do this equitably, recognizing economic effects on energy users, especially energy burdened users; on the workforce currently providing these services; and on the overall economy
“It is the intent of the General Assembly that the Clean Heat Standard be designed and implemented in a manner that achieves Vermont’s thermal sector greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to meet the requirements of (state law), minimizes costs to customers, and recognizes that affordable heating is essential for Vermonters. It shall minimize adverse impacts to customers with low income and moderate income and those households with the highest energy burdens.”
The Affordable Heat Act establishes a “clean heat standard” to help meet Vermont’s existing climate goals of reducing emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by the year 2030 and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
On April 28, Republican governor Phil Scott vetoed the measure, saying it would “financially punish” people who can’t afford to make the transition to cleaner fuel. Scott is not wrong. Lowering emissions should not mean going back to bed warmers or sleeping in the barn with the animals the way people did 500 years ago. Then on May 11, the legislature overrode Scott’s veto.
“Vermonters are facing a climate emergency and a heating crisis, and the status quo isn’t working for anyone,” Elena Mihaly, vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Vermont, an environmental group, said in a May 11 statement. The legislature’s override of Scott’s veto “sends a clear message, and we don’t have a moment to waste implementing the new law,” she added.
Devilish Details In Vermont
The law called for the state’s Public Utility Commission — an independent group composed of three members — to design and implement a credit-based marketplace. Every year, companies that make or import fuel used for heat in the state will have to buy or generate a certain number of “clean heat credits,” depending on how much fossil fuel they delivered in the previous year and how dirty it was.
The value of each credit is based on the emissions reductions associated with a particular measure. That can include helping households and property owners to weatherize buildings and make energy efficiency improvements, or to install cold climate heat pumps and solar hot water heaters. Other eligible, yet controversial, measures include replacing fossil fuels with wood pellet stoves, “sustainably sourced” biofuels, and renewable natural gas (RNG) made by capturing methane from landfills, cow manure, and food waste.
Any clean heat measure taken after January 1, 2023 can count toward the new credit system, but the marketplace itself won’t get up and running for a couple more years, according to Canary Media. The law includes a “check-back” provision which requires the Public Utility Commission to first provide the legislature with a report estimating the economic impacts on customers by January 2025. Lawmakers must then approve a second law based on those estimates before the rules can take effect.
Opposition From The Left & The Right in Vermont
Some environmental groups and Democratic state policymakers said they opposed the new standard because of its expansive view of “clean heat.” RNG infrastructure, for instance, can potentially leak methane., which is a powerful greenhouse gas. Clearing crops and trees to produce biofuels or wood pellets also risks increasing, rather than reducing, emissions.
The Vermont Fuel Dealers Association has voiced concerns that the policy will hurt rural residents and local family run businesses. Other critics of the Affordable Heat Act, including Republican state lawmakers, warned that fuel companies would likely pass the cost of implementing such measures onto their customers at a time when home heating costs are soaring across the country. Those higher prices are affecting lower income Vermonters the hardest.
The law includes provisions to “minimize adverse impacts” to low income households and those with the highest energy burdens, but precisely how those goals are to be met remains somewhat murky.
“For Vermonters who are concerned that they would have limited choices [under the law], my comment to that is, you have limited choices now,” state senator Becca White, one of the top proponents of the new law, told the press last week. “And the only way that we’ll move beyond you being locked into fossil fuels until it’s too expensive to heat your home or cool your home is if we design a system out of it,” she added.
The RNG Conundrum
The companies who make a living supplying methane gas, incorrectly known as “natural gas,” are working overtime to convince people that methane harvested from lagoons of animal manure — referred to a renewable natural gas — is better for the environment. It’s not. Methane is methane and whether it comes from deep underground or from a farm, it behaves exactly the same when it is burned.
“The message you hear [from companies] that’s very persuasive for consumers is, ‘Why do we need to get off the gas system if we can drop in a clean replacement instead?’” says Sasan Saadat, a senior research and policy analyst for the environmental organization Earthjustice. “We can keep all the same appliances in place and we’ll just substitute the clean fuel for the dirty fuel. What’s missing from that message is an honest assessment of how scant the supply of sustainable RNG is and how risky the potential is that RNG could actually increase climate impacts.”
The upshot of this legislation seems to be the creation of a new state bureaucracy that will administer an insanely complex set of rules that consumers can’t understand without hiring an attorney and an accountant. We suspect Vermont would have been better off following the example of Maine, which is educating its residents about the latest heat pumps that perform well in the coldest weather and lower heating bills dramatically.
Maine has incentive programs for low income families that help pay for heat pumps and energy efficiency upgrades. As a result, heat pump installations are soaring in Maine, held back mostly by the scarcity of trained installers, not a lack of interest by consumers.
It seems Vermont’s legislators have ignored the most basic rule of all, often known as KISS, which stands for “keep it simple, stupid.” It is laudable that the state wants to lower its emissions from heating sources, but if more people knew they could save a pile of cash for many years to come by installing a heat pump, Adam Smith’s magical unseen hand would do the rest without a lot of bureaucracy, filling out of forms, and managing a complex system of credits that no one understands.
We give Vermont an A for trying, but only a C minus for execution.
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