Guest editorial: Affordable Heat Act offers lower costs, less pollution

Moving from apartment to apartment while growing up in a lower-income family, I developed a deep understanding of the challenges of the high costs of fossil fuels, especially for heating.  This personal experience grounds the work I now do conducting careful, thorough, and fact-based energy and data analysis, including as a member of the Vermont Climate Council.

The average price of fuel oil in Vermont last month was $4.40/gallon.  That’s over two dollars per gallon higher than just two years ago ($2.37/gallon in January 2021). While propane prices have not gone up nearly as dramatically–increasing from an average of $2.60/gallon in January 2021 to $3.03/gallon last month–propane was already a very expensive fuel and remains even more expensive than fuel oil per unit of energy provided (a gallon of propane provides only two-thirds as much heating energy as a gallon of oil).

This is not sustainable. While especially bad now, the relatively high costs and the price volatility of fossil-based heating fuels have been persistent features of Vermont’s reliance on a 100% imported commodity fossil fuel market for decades.

If we truly care about affordability and equity, we can’t continue to leave Vermonters — especially lower and middle-income Vermonters — so exposed to and dependent on these high cost and price-volatile fossil heating fuels. The only way to effectively and durably cut energy costs is to help Vermonters reduce fossil fuel exposure and dependence.

In short, there can be no real energy affordability strategy without transitioning beyond fossil fuels. That is why it is time to pass the Affordable Heat Act and establish a Clean Heat Standard to help Vermonters access lower-cost, more price-stable, and more efficient clean heating options.

Though it may be surprising to some, the truth is that the most affordable heating options are usually also the cleaner options: weatherization, heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, and advanced wood heat, including both efficient stoves and boilers. All of these options usually cost much less over time than fossil fuels (and that’s just when it comes to our budgets, not even taking into account the social cost of climate pollution). 

To take just one example, combining the up-front cost of equipment with the annual fuel or electricity it uses, over a 12-year period it costs the average household less than $500 a year to use a heat pump water heater. The cost to use a propane water heater? More than twice as much, at about $1,000 a year.

Significant cost savings like these are what Vermonters can achieve when we reduce fossil fuel dependence in favor of lower-cost, more price-stable, and cleaner alternatives. This is the main reason why a recent report commissioned by the Vermont Climate Council and the Agency of Natural Resources found that cleaning up our heating sector in line with Global Warming Solutions Act targets by 2030 could, conservatively estimated, achieve $2 billion in net savings for Vermont households and businesses.

That’s $7,500 per household over the life of those cleaner, more affordable options. That’s what reducing dependence on high cost, price-volatile fossil fuels can mean for Vermonters — real savings measured in dollars and cents, not just pollution reduction.

To make this transition to more affordable heat happen, we have to finally hold fossil fuel companies responsible for reducing pollution and helping to pay for the transition – just like we have long required of electric utilities. Building on the foundation of last year’s Clean Heat Standard, the Affordable Heat Act will require fossil fuel importers to invest in solutions that durably reduce energy costs, especially for low- and moderate-income Vermonters.

To comply with the Affordable Heat Act, fossil fuel corporations will primarily have to provide (or pay others to provide) weatherization, heat pumps, and advanced wood heat. These solutions will help Vermonters shift to lower-cost, more price-stable heat, while also cutting climate pollution in line with our scientific, moral, and legal obligations. There can also be a role for things like biodiesels (though only when they are truly lower-emitting than fuel oil on a lifecycle emissions basis) that can be a direct fuel replacement without requiring equipment changes.

The Affordable Heat Act will not only help transform our heating sector in a more affordable direction. It will also do more to reduce climate pollution—and meet Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act obligations—than any other piece of energy legislation in Vermont, past or present. Alone it will ensure that we achieve more than a third of Vermont’s required climate pollution reduction by 2030, more than twice what any other recommendation in the Climate Action Plan would deliver.

As a ninth-generation Vermonter, I have been particularly disappointed to see Washington-D.C. style tactics being used to undermine what should be a serious, fact-based, and civil Vermont policy debate, in the best of our civic traditions. Unfortunately, instead there is a lot of misinformation circulating about the Affordable Heat Act. For those who would like an accurate, fact-based understanding of the policy, I highly recommend reviewing the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) available at https://www.eanvt.org/affordable-heat-faq/ 

Any way you look at it, we have a pressing economic, moral, and legal obligation to act. It’s beyond time to begin a careful but serious transition to cleaner, more affordable heat. Because, whether speaking from personal or professional experience, I know Vermonters cannot afford the costs of continual delay and inaction.

Editor’s note: Jared Duval is a member of the Vermont Climate Council, appointed to provide expertise in energy and data analysis. He lives in Montpelier.

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