Upper Valley lawmakers support effort to move Vermont off dirty fuel for heating

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-27-2023 5:59 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Having made it through the Vermont Statehouse, a legislative bill that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels used for home heating is putting fuel dealers are on the defensive.

Following the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2020, Vermont lawmakers face mounting pressure to reach the state’s emission reduction targets by 2025. The state will have to emissions to below cut one-quarter of its 2005 emissions levels.

The proposed bill, known as the Affordable Heat Act, puts heating, which accounts for 35% of Vermont’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, at the center of the reductions challenge.

Senate Bill 5 would establish the Clean Heat Standard, under which natural gas utilities like a local fuel distributor would have to “retire” clean heat credits by focusing on renewable heating options. The credits represent the amount of greenhouse gas emissions reductions caused by “a clean heat measure,” such as installing heat pumps.

Alternatively, a fuel distributor could contract out or purchase the credits.

Last week, the Vermont House approved the bill, which the Senate passed in March. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, is expected to veto the bill. Democrats, who control the House and Senate, could then attempt to override the veto.

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As written, following amendments from the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the bill does not implement any program. Instead it directs the state’s Public Utility Commission to design and study the impacts of new regulations on the heating fuel industry, like the credit system.

The commission would then share proposals with the Legislature by the 2025 session.

Supporters of the legislation say it will save Vermonters money in the long run by easing their reliance on price-volatile fossil fuels. The price of No. 2 oil, used most often to heat homes, nearly doubled between 2021 and 2022.

Casey Cota, owner of Bellows Falls, Vt.-based fuel service company Cota & Cota, which has offices in White River Junction, said that Vermonters as have already whittled down their heating oil consumption without government intervention.

Since 1970, the average Vermont home usage of heating oil has declined from 1700 gallons to 700 gallons, Cota said. “But there was no legislation that was passed to make that happen,” he added.

Market dynamics alone incentivize the transition for fuel dealers and consumers, he said. “As an industry we’ve been doing it because our goal is to help consumers conserve fuel,” Cota said. “That’s a great selling point for a new system: it’s more efficient, you can have better heat, it’s more reliable.”

The industry feels the threat of business-as-unusual. The Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, a trade group, encouraged the fuel dealers in its membership to put notes in customers’ fuel bills citing the impact the bill would have on fuel prices. Small dealers lined the halls of the statehouse to urge senators to vote no on the bill in March.

Sen. Becca White, a Windsor County Democrat, is a primary sponsor of the bill. White, who’s in her first term as senator, serves on the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee.

“The reason the bill has caused so much money and investment in having it fail is because we have an industry that has profited off of pollution for the entirety of its existence, and they don’t want to be regulated,” White said in an interview with the Valley News.

“That’s not to say that’s coming from your local fuel dealer, who has taken on the mantle of big oil. But we are seeing a heavy response to this bill because it is innovative and bold.”

Drawing fuel dealers into the clean energy market “needs to happen,” she added.

“Fuel dealers are a valuable partner,” White said. “In fact, we can’t make the transition from fossil fuels without them.”

But she also emphasized that the industry is bound by its bottom line.

“I hope that if folks are getting inflammatory statements coming at them, that they take a critical eye to who is profiting off their continued reliance on fossil fuels,” she said.

Rob Stenger, co-owner of fuel distributor Simple Energy, has testified multiple times in opposition to the bill. Simple Energy is based in West Lebanon, but Vermonters make up half of its customer base.

Calling the bill a “credit scheme,” Stenger said it would produce a “huge tax that’s going to be levied on Vermont consumers.”

Vermont “backed itself into a corner,” with the passage of its legally binding emissions reductions targets, Stenger said. “Transitioning your business to clean energy is very capital intense. You can’t just flip a switch.”

He pointed to a labor force not robust enough to meet the rising demands of clean energy installations.

“You can forget all the other politicking around the environmental movement,” Stenger said. “The workforce necessary to electrify the thermal industry in the state of Vermont is massive. It’s currently non-existent.” He added that the skill set necessary for electrification requires “years of training.”

About 25 of Simple Energy’s 90 employees have been with the company for less than a year, Stenger said, citing the clean energy demand as part of that hiring boom.

“It takes me three years and 150K of sunken costs to get that individual to where I can let them work alone, unsupervised in someone’s home, and to provide all the tooling and technology to make them competent at that job,” Stenger said.

But White, the state senator, sees “politicking” as the way through the pitfalls of the transition away from fossil fuels.

If the state doesn’t have a hand in “designing how we get through this transition, it will be a disastrous situation,” she said.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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