Letter to the editor: Confused about Affordable Heat Bill? Then read it

There has been a great deal of misinformation circulating around about the Affordable Heat Act. I would encourage anyone who is interested in gaining an accurate understanding of the bill to go online and look up the text of the bill itself. It is readily accessible, and, though long, is written in language that is quite clear and straightforward. It can be found at legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2024/S.5.

When I checked it out, I found the Affordable Heat Act to be a remarkably thoughtful and well-crafted bill. It is designed to provide a clear, gradual, and affordable pathway for Vermonters to move away from fossil fuel to cleaner, less expensive, and more economically stable ways to heat their homes.

Equally important, the bill also provides a pathway for fuel dealers whose livelihood has depended on selling fossil fuels to diversify and grow their businesses in a direction more in line with selling cleaner fuels, or installing and servicing cleaner heating equipment — heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, pellet stoves and pellet boilers — while continuing to serve many of their traditional customers.

The bill is charged specifically with providing solutions that accommodate the needs of low- and moderate-income Vermonters and those with an unusually high energy burden — meaning those who have to pay a larger portion of their income on energy costs. Furthermore, it provides that the goals of the bill and the strategies for achieving those goals be overseen by the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is a non-partisan, public body whose primary responsibility is managing energy costs to the benefit of all Vermonters.

The bill doesn’t pretend it can solve all the nuanced issues of Vermont’s energy markets and carbon-reduction mandates in one piece of legislation, or that it can do so overnight. Instead, it provides a mechanism and a public process in which those nuances can be fully articulated and addressed over the coming decades, through periodic updates in policy, in a way that is fair and equitable, but which clearly and steadily moves us all in the direction we have to move — toward cleaner, less expensive, and carbon-free energy.

There is no tax associated with the Affordable Heat Act. Instead, it would establish a market structure called a Performance Standard that will encourage fossil fuel businesses to move in the direction of selling cleaner fuels or of providing clean heat services that directly and effectively reduce carbon emissions. It does so by requiring them to retire a specified number of “Clean Heat Credits” each year. A business that sells fossil fuels can retire Clean Heat Credits by including services in their businesses that relate to cleaner technologies, or simply by selling B100 biodiesel as an alternative to #2 fuel oil, or by purchasing the credits outright, if it’s unwilling to undertake the former two options. This credit structure is designed to help fuel dealers respond to the reality that fossil fuels are a dead-end option in the long-run, and gives them opportunities to move their businesses in a direction with a positive, cleaner energy future. Only businesses that fail to do so will have to purchase retired credits outright.

This type of performance standard has been shown to work very well within the market structures businesses are familiar with, while gently nudging the market itself in a direction away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Other states — Washington, Oregon, and California — have successfully established performance standards, and Vermont’s own Renewable Energy Standard provides a similar credit-based incentive structure for electric utilities. The Renewable Energy Standard has been in effect in Vermont since 2017, and has helped make significant incentives available for Vermonters to purchase heat pumps and appliances, and to receive higher returns on produced solar energy by selling credits to their utility — all while responsibly managing rate-payer costs.

Vermonters contribute just as much in climate pollution as most people on the planet — more, in fact, per capita than neighboring states — and there is nothing that exempts us from the responsibility we all have to reduce pollution and to do our part to bring climate change under control. Doing nothing, and suggesting it’s someone else’s responsibility to address climate change, is to turn our backs on our communities — and our children. We are not going to solve the climate crisis by continuing to burn fossil fuels — in Vermont or anywhere else.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that Vermont’s climate pollution reduction obligations are real, and backed by existing Vermont state law — specifically the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020. They are also tied to our obligations under the Paris climate accords. This bill is a solid good-faith effort to seriously and effectively address one of Vermont’s largest sources of climate pollution — the thermal fuels sector — and to do so by providing maximum flexibility to achieve the most cost-effective and equitable clean heating transition possible. Without this policy, Vermont has almost no chance to meet its legal obligations to reduce climate pollution 40% by 2030.

If you still have questions or concerns, talk to your legislators. This bill is going through a lengthy legislative process. It will need to pass through the House and then go back to the Senate, before going to the governor. Then, a multi-year Public Utility Commission process will begin. Then it will come back to the Legislature for another vote in 2025. There will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and to raise appropriate concerns over the next two years.

What is unacceptable — and frankly, irresponsible — is to scuttle the whole thing in favor of a status quo that has done nothing to reduce climate pollution, that continues to be geared toward maximizing oil company profits, that perpetuates commodity-based price volatility and broad economic inequities, and that will ultimately devastate human life on earth. Again, read the bill: legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2024/S.5.

Make no mistake — the Affordable Heat Act deserves our support.

Thomas Perry


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