A conservative heat-pump user weighs in on “Affordable Heat”
by Rep. Scott Beck
S.5 has generated a lot of commentary and left readers to wonder: is it a carbon tax, or isn’t it? Is there a check back to the legislature, or not? Did Vermont Gas write it? Will S.5 even make a dent in world carbon emissions? Will the cost be pennies or $4.00 per gallon, or closer to the Administration’s estimate of $0.70?
These are interesting questions to ponder, and many have shared their opinions, but nearly all miss the point and ignore the realities of energy, science, and basic problem solving. What is the problem we are trying to solve?
Ignoring this reality seems to be widespread, but here it is. Vermont is extremely cold during the winter and combustion and/or electricity is required to keep a building warm. Combustion causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere. So does electricity. 88% of electricity on the New England grid comes from non-renewable sources, 52% from natural gas. Solar electric production plummets in the winter; heating with electricity is heavily dependent on natural gas or even more carbon intensive fuels.
S.5 basically divides building heating fuel into three categories, all emit carbon. Fuels used for building heating that are traceable and can be measured at delivery (oil and propane), fuels used for building heating that are not traceable and/or measurable at delivery (wood and electricity), and carbon fuels that are traceable and measurable, but green-washed for political and geographic reasons (natural gas).
Those that heat with wood, electricity, or natural gas receive special treatment and become a protected class in S.5 while continuing to pour carbon into the atmosphere.
Those that heat with oil and propane are not protected in S.5 and will pay more for these fuels, the estimated amount varies wildly.
Here’s the punchline. The protected class will remain protected and pay nothing no matter how much carbon they pour into the atmosphere. Oil and propane users will continue to pay for their carbon usage even if they do what government is encouraging them to do, reduce their usage of oil and propane. S.5 creates a perverse incentive for Vermonters to shift into a protected class and pour carbon into the atmosphere. Burlington’s McNeil Electricity Generating Station burns wood and pours carbon into the atmosphere 24/7 while Vermont annually loses 1,500 acres of forest. Burlington Electric customers heating with electricity won’t pay a penny under S.5. Neither will natural gas customers in Addison, Chittenden, and Franklin counties due to special treatment in S.5.
The illogical reasoning for this conundrum is simple. S.5 isn’t designed to punish Vermonters for using carbon fuels; it is designed to punish them if they don’t use the ‘correct’ carbon fuel.
There is hope if the legislature only had enough confidence and understanding of their work to date and the measurable progress being achieved.
Vermont has been aggressive about reducing carbon emissions and increasing clean electricity generation, about $200M was spent in FY24 to make progress on these goals. The federal government’s commitment is substantial too, $52.2B in FY24. And there is good news to report, federal and Vermont education and incentive programs are working as intended; heating oil use in Vermont homes decreased from 112 million gallons in 2003 to 84 million gallons in 2019, down 32%. Solar and wind electric grid production in New England has tripled in the last five years (up to 7.5%) and offshore wind will soon be installed in New England.
S.5 is a distraction and divides Vermont into protected and unprotected classes in a misguided strategy to achieve a worthy goal – carbon reduction. Vermont has wasted so much time discussing S.5 and other similarly constructed ideas. Let’s get down to business and work with Vermonters, industry, and our neighbors in New England, New York, and Quebec to further the development of clean reliable baseload energy that will lower the cost of energy and carbon use, grow our economy, and keep our homes warm.
Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, has served on the House Education and Ways & Means Committees. He has heated his home exclusively with a geothermal heat pump since 2008.