Vt. House gives early approval to bill creating a clean heat standard

Published: 3/17/2022 10:15:00 PM
Modified: 3/17/2022 10:14:56 PM

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers in the Vermont House on Wednesday advanced a bill that would establish a clean heat standard, a system that would eventually lower greenhouse gas emissions in the home heat sector.

Following a preliminary vote of 96-44, the bill is expected to receive final approval from the House on Thursday before moving to the Senate and, potentially, the governor’s desk.

The proposed program was one of the most significant included in the Vermont Climate Action Plan, published in December, which recommended more than 230 actions that could help the state meet its required emission reductions, many of which require action from the Legislature. Around 34% of Vermont’s emissions come from the heating sector.

In an extended session on the floor, lawmakers spoke broadly on Wednesday about the heavy cost burden fronted by many Vermonters — and disproportionately by low-income Vermonters — in the winter. With fossil fuel energy costs rising, some expressed concerns that home heat prices would rise further, and others expressed urgency to move away from a volatile fossil fuel market.

Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Technology and spoke about the bill on the floor, told lawmakers that fluctuating prices for fossil fuels would make it more cost-efficient for Vermonters to switch to greener options in the long term.

“You would think that, for the $750 million Vermonters send to Texas and Oklahoma and Saudi Arabia to stay warm each winter, we’d be getting something in return for that economic drain,” he said. “What we’re getting is a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and runaway inflation.”

Using a credit system, the clean heat standard would designate “obligated parties,” such as wholesale fuel sellers, that would be required to make a steady transition to cleaner heat options. They would need to purchase credits depending on the amount of emissions for which they were responsible.

Parties such as small fuel distributors, contractors and plumbers who install or deliver clean heat to homes could earn clean heat credits based on the amount of emissions they reduce. The Public Utility Commission would be responsible for officially creating and implementing the clean heat standard and would hold a number of public meetings during its process. One member asked Briglin for an example: How would the credit system work in a situation where a homeowner swapped their hot water heater that uses fossil fuels for one that uses electricity?

Briglin said the business that installs the electric hot water heater would gain credits for the amount of emissions the swap would reduce.

“Those credits would go to the contractor who did the work,” he said. “And again, maybe that’s your plumber. That’s whoever works on your heating system in your house — maybe you’re doing it yourself, and through verification, you earn those credits.”

Obligated parties would be required to generate or purchase a certain number of those credits over time. Gov. Phil Scott expressed some hesitancy about the bill at his weekly press briefing Tuesday, primarily because the Public Utility Commission — which is appointed instead of elected — would create and implement the standard. But environmentalists said there’s ample precedent for the Legislature to delegate authority to the commission.

Lawmakers who opposed the bill focused their arguments on already-high energy costs, uncertainty about how the standard will impact Vermonters and doubts about its impact on global climate change.

Rep. Arthur Peterson, R-Clarendon, said he does not think change made in Vermont “would affect the world’s climate at all.”

Several environmental groups celebrated the bill upon its passage.

“Today was a major and important step forward in Vermont’s commitment to transitioning away from polluting, price-volatile fossil fuels in our second biggest carbon-intensive sector — thermal — and do so in an equitable, gradual and climate-accountable way,” Johanna Miller, climate and energy program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said in a statement.

Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said the bill “would finally require climate pollution cuts from thermal-sector fossil fuel companies, something we should have done years ago.”

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