We can clean up our heating sources

It is very apparent by now that climate change is happening both locally and globally with rising average temperatures and devastating effects, including extraordinary wildfires, flooding and other extreme weather events. In September 2020, the Vermont Legislature enacted the Global Warming Solutions Act (Act 153) that set greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets and created a Climate Council to develop a Climate Action Plan (CAP) to achieve those targets. The Climate Council published its report in December 2021, and in January the Legislature began working to implement it.

Transportation accounts for about 40 percent of GHG emissions in Vermont and heating accounts for about 34 percent. Targeting these two energy-intensive sectors will give us the best chance of meeting the target of a 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels of GHG emissions by 2030. The House Energy and Technology Committee has started crafting legislation from some of the specific recommendations of the Climate Action Plan regarding heating, including a Municipal Energy Resilience Plan (bill H.518) and a Clean Heat Standard.

The Climate Council was careful to insist that whatever measures were taken to reduce GHG emissions, they be done in an equitable manner to prevent impacting those with the highest energy burden. Energy burden is defined as the total household energy expenses for heating and electricity divided by household income. The highest energy burden is experienced by the 20 percent of Vermonters with the lowest income, as shown in the accompanying chart. Energy burden profiles can also be associated geographically with the highest energy burdens occurring in rural communities because of increased transportation fuel costs.

Vermont’s cities, towns and villages own and maintain approximately 7,000 old buildings that are expensive to heat and have a large carbon footprint. To meet our climate goals and ease the energy burden on municipal budgets, H.518 will support communities with technical assistance, design support and funding to make municipal assets more energy-efficient and to displace fossil fuels with cleaner options. It will expand the State Energy Management Program to help municipalities finance improvements and assist municipal leaders who may lack the technical expertise to assess the best investments to increase efficiency and resilience, with help from Efficiency VT and regional planning commissions.

With one-third of Vermont’s climate pollution coming primarily from fossil fuels used to heat our buildings and water, dependence on fossil fuels is expensive, with unpredictable price swings for consumers. If you heat your home with oil or propane, you’re paying as much as 40 percent above last year’s prices. This creates an especially large energy burden for lower-income Vermonters. Unlike our highly regulated electric sector, which is subject to the renewable energy standard (RES), fossil fuel corporations are under no obligation to reduce the carbon pollution of their product. A Clean Heat Standard (CHS) would require fossil fuel corporations to provide cleaner heating fuel options and/or pay for pollution-reduction measures that benefit Vermonters. These include employing cleaner heating options, like heat pumps, heat pump water heaters and advanced wood heat to displace fossil fuels; or supporting weatherization and efficiency measures. A CHS places the obligation of lowering emissions on fuel sellers while presenting Vermonters with choices on how and when to move to cleaner heat. To ensure equity in the application of the CHS, we are considering various design options, such as requiring a high fraction of credits to come from serving low- and moderate- income homes, providing extra credits for providing clean heat in rental housing, and making incentive payments income-sensitive. Without implementing a CHS, Vermont will not meet its emissions reduction requirements under the Global Warming Solutions Act.

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