By Guy Page
The Vermont Senate today passed H715, the Clean Heat Standard which pushes Vermont fuel dealers and their customers to surrender traditional oil and gas heat in favor of electric heat pumps and weatherization.
The Legislature hopes the Clean Heat Standard will incentivize/force Vermonters to choose heat pumps and weatherization over traditional oil/gas heat furnaces by raising the operating cost of the latter and subsidizing the former.
The bill received preliminary approval by a 23-7 roll call vote on Thursday, and received final approval by voice vote on Friday.
On Thursday, the Senate met a key demand of Gov. Phil Scott: it agreed the Legislature must first vote on a Public Utilities Commission (PUC) implementation plan (which will take about a year) before any action is taken. Also, a $600,000 economic impact study must be submitted by November, 2023.
However, several nervous Democratic senators expressed concern the Clean Heat Standard will significantly add to heating costs for fixed-income and low/middle income Vermonters. Ann Cummings (D-Washington) noted that she has received many calls from new Americans concerned about a Sophie’s Choice of either 1) not transitioning to heat pumps and thus paying far more for fuel, or 2) spending their life savings on installing heat pumps. She said she hopes the PUC plan does what the bill promises: protect low and middle-income Vermonters from harmful economic impact of the Clean Heat Standard.
Senate Natural Resources and Energy Chair Chris Bray, whose committee advanced the bill, said as written the bill addresses low-income concerns by offering subsidies. Sen. Russ Ingalls said his constituents in the Northeast Kingdom, many of whom are low-income, would prefer to be left alone by the government to stand on their own two feet without the need for government assistance.
Ingalls also noted the projected $2.2 billion needed to upgrade Vermont’s power grid to handle the statewide transition from fossil fuel to electricity.
Sen. Bobby Starr (D/R Essex-Orleans) expressed another, even more basic concern: that heat pumps simply won’t keep Vermonters warm in winter. In his personal experience with heat pumps, any temperatures below 25 degrees F require plenty of warm sweaters and heated mattresses, he warned his fellow senators during the floor debate Thursday.
Supporters of the bill in effect told the worriers not to worry – the Legislature will be required to pass judgement on the PUC plan, and can recommend changes at that time if necessary. They also appealed to the need to address the underlying serious problem of climate change. Sen. Mark MacDonald conceded (as he did in committee recently) that the Clean Heat Standard is, in fact if not name, a carbon tax – a term Chair Bray declined to use when asked.
However, MacDonald said the climate change problem will continue to grow, and it’s better to tackle the problem now rather than wait. None of the senators discussed how much Vermont’s carbon initiatives will impact global CO2 levels.
Gov. Phil Scott promised on the campaign trail he would never support a carbon tax. Whether he agrees with MacDonald’s frank assessment of the CHS as a ‘carbon tax’ or defers to Bray’s interpretation remains to be seen. But first H715 must return to the House for reconciliation with the Senate amendments, which in addition to the voting requirement also limits liquid biofuels and renewable natural gas to 10% of the year’s total clean heat credits.