ADDISON COUNTY — When winter rolls into the Green Mountains, many Vermonters gear up for a season of fun. But while some look forward to the colder months, others, like Starksboro’s April Parent, see only struggle on the horizon.
“Before winter even comes, in August or September, we start worrying about making it,” said Parent. “What are the heating bills going to run? What are the electric bills going to run? It’s really a struggle every year.”
While prices for heating fuels have risen steadily and assistance programs strain to meet rising demands, an effort staffed by Mount Abraham Union High School volunteers is pitching in to provide more affordable heat to the area’s low-income residents.
Such help is welcome by people like Parent. Four years ago, she lost her job driving a truck for J.R.’s Rubbish and Recycling of Bridport. She was the sole provider for her family, supporting her middle-school-age son and her husband, who now hasn’t worked in 10 years due to a chronic lung disease. Since then, she’s sought help from the federally funded Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). But the program isn’t meant to meet all of her needs, and it typically doesn’t.
“Usually in January or so, we start running really low on fuel, and we’ve run out twice over the past four years,” she said. “It gets really cold in the house. Pipes start freezing. And we have to call a 1-800 number to get help.”
The bulk of Vermont’s LIHEAP funds are administered through the Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program — the deadline for applying is fast approaching on Feb. 29. This program, however, can’t cover a family’s entire seasonal heating bill, explained Richard Moffi, state fuel program chief.
“Seasonal Fuel Assistance is a supplemental program. It truly should be called supplementary fuel assistance because the program is designed to pay only a portion of a client’s home heating bill,” said Moffi. “We do not have enough money, and the program was never designed to pay 100 percent of every person’s heating bill.”
Crisis fuel, which is administered locally by Addison Community Action (ACA), is meant to aid those that are desperate for fuel. Moffi recommends LIHEAP families frequently check their fuel storage. If resources are running low, he said to call ACA at 802-388-2285 before running out, not after.
AFFORDING FUEL PRICES
The problem for many families is the price of petroleum derivatives has skyrocketed in recent years.
“We’re talking 50-60-cent (per gallon) fuel increases from last year,” said Moffi.
According to Department of Public Service data, from Dec. 2010-2011, the Vermont retail price for fuels rose by as much as one-third. Specifically, the per-gallon price of:
• No. 2 fuel oil rose 32.67 percent to $3.783.
• Kerosene rose 31.93 percent to $4.211.
• Diesel rose 26.26 percent to $4.083.
• Unleaded gasoline rose 19.15 percent to $3.433.
• And propane rose 14.2 percent to $3.248.
While the cost of these fuels has increased dramatically in recent years, the statewide average cost of green cordwood and wood pellets has remained relatively stable, according to the DPS. Wood heating fuels now cost less than half the price of popular fossil fuels (see chart).
Last year, the allocation of LIHEAP funds was tweaked in favor of wood fuels. Previously, LIHEAP money was sent directly to a single fuel provider. Although this is still true in most instances, if a LIHEAP recipient has a wood stove — whether it burns firewood, chips or pellets — they now receive the LIHEAP funding instead of a single kind of fuel, and they can split the money among different types of fuels to find the most affordable option for their home.
The issue, again, for many families is that the startup costs of purchasing and installing a wood stove are steep for low-income households.
That’s where the local nonprofit Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative (VSHI) is starting to fill a void.
VSHI EXTENDS A HAND
Late last month, Tom Tailer, a Mount Abraham Union High School teacher who founded VSHI, met Parent at her home to talk about installing a wood stove.
Since 2008, VSHI has funded and helped install 18 wood pellet stoves in low-income homes across Addison and Washington counties and has provided low-income Vermonters with tons of pellets. The organization, which is driven by Tailer and powered by Mount Abe student volunteers, was looking to place two stoves for which it had funding. Most years the nonprofit receives $20,000-$40,000 from the state. But after the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Irene, VSHI has yet to receive any funding this year.
VSHI looks to work with LIHEAP grantees, like Parent, to help stretch their funding further. In Parent’s case, the rising cost of kerosene, with which she heats her trailer, is rapidly depleting her LIHEAP funds.
“It’s ironic that our lowest income neighbors heat with the most expensive fuels, and this is one way around that,” said Tailer. “A lot of homes, like (Parent’s) burn kerosene because it used to be a much more affordable option.”
For 30 minutes, Tailer meticulously inspected Parent’s trailer for a place to install a stove. After eyeing every corner of her living room, he decided it could be done and told her VSHI would do it.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Parent. “It’s incredible that someone out in the community is able to help someone in need.”
Tailer reminded her that he’s not alone. VSHI runs on the backs of active student volunteers.
Last month, a team of Mount Abe students helped a Bristol veteran named Fletcher Vincent heat his home.
The VSHI volunteers installed a new pellet stove, delivered a ton of pellets, replaced some insulation and put in a new window to help trap heat.
“It was cold,” said Mount Abe senior Meghan Morse. “It’s nice to be able to give back to your community and be able to help someone who can’t help himself.”
The students said Vincent has trouble getting around these days, so pellets are a better fit than cordwood for him as well as their other clients.
“We tend to veer away from basic log stoves because a lot of clients that we have are either unable to lift large amounts … or cut trees down,” said senior Garth Wilson. “This is a much easier way, where you can get a scoop full of pellets and go over and fill the stove. Also, having a pellet stove, which doesn’t heat up as much, you can fit it into a wider variety of places.”
Wood pellets also have an environmental advantage over fossil fuels like kerosene — they don’t cause hazardous waste spills.
“If your bag’s leaking, you don’t risk catching your house on fire, you just sweep them out,” said Morse.
With a $6.5 million slash to federal funds for Vermont’s LIHEAP program this year, Tailer thinks the VSHI model might begin to gain clout.
“In the past, people were interested in LIHEAP,” he said. “But the sense I get this year is that with the federal government cutting back … the future of fuel assistance may be very different than in the past.”