Dan Fingas: All Vermonters deserve clean and affordable heat, and S.5 will deliver

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This commentary is by Dan Fingas of Plainfield, Vermont movement politics director for the bistate grassroots organization Rights & Democracy

Speaking to people across Vermont, whether at an organizing meeting, around a kitchen table, or even in the halls of the Statehouse, there is a theme that consistently emerges during the winter: Heating is expensive and burdensome. 

And for people who are working for low wages, or single parenting, or renting a unit in a drafty old building, these costs can be the difference between balancing a budget and not being able to afford the month’s bills, or making tradeoffs with other essentials like food.  

The problem is only getting worse — in the past two years, we have seen the cost of fuel oil rise by almost $2 per gallon, and kerosene has risen similarly. Propane prices, which were already high, have also risen, more slowly, but steadily. Nearly 40 percent of Vermont households heat with oil or kerosene. 

While wealthier families may be able to absorb these costs to a certain point, low- and moderate-income households are already being hit hard. And not only are these fuels expensive, they are also dirty and produce high emissions. The heating sector is one of the biggest sources of climate pollution in our state. 

As a member-led grassroots organization working to win changes that improve the lives of working Vermonters, Rights & Democracy believes that Vermont must do its part to ensure a just transition to a clean energy future that mandates renewable energy and ends our reliance on dirty, volatile fossil fuels. And we must guarantee that everyone benefits — especially Vermonters who have been most impacted by past and current harms. 

No matter what we look like, where we live, or how much money we make, we all deserve to be able to keep the heat on and stay warm in the winter without worrying about how we will pay for it or how it is impacting our health. 

By passing S.5, the Affordable Heat Act, this year, we have the opportunity to make meaningful strides toward this vision. The Affordable Heat Act will require fossil fuel importers to invest in and offer clean, affordable and price-stable heating options for all Vermonters, with a focus on weatherization and other solutions that reduce energy use — for example, a heat pump to replace an old, outdated oil furnace. S.5 offers a path toward a cleaner, greener future for us all, while ensuring that all low- and moderate-income households — including renters — can benefit from this transition. It places requirements on corporations to make these options available and affordable; homeowners and renters will not be mandated to make changes. 

Unlike a similar bill that failed last year, which Rights & Democracy did not support, S.5 contains specific targets to center equity and affordability; accounts more fully for life cycle emissions of a given heat source and requires these to decrease over time, which will phase out biofuels; and incentivizes energy use mitigation. 

The policy as currently written requires that 60% of investments in the residential sector go to low- to moderate-income Vermonters. It also requires that 50% of investments for low- and moderate-income households go toward measures that will lower those Vermonters’ energy bills, including weatherization, heat pumps, solar, and geothermal. For renters, any upfront costs not already covered could be taken care of by existing programs like the Weatherization Repayment Assistance Program. Finally, the bill will establish an equity advisory group to guide implementation, and ensure that renters have a seat at the table.  

Right now, fossil fuel companies and their high-paid lobbyists are spending thousands to stop this bill. They’ve recently spent over $25,000 on ads opposing this transition that will require them to help us all access cleaner heat sources and options to reduce energy use, which will save us all money over time. 

This is our moment to stand up to corporations that are focused only on protecting their bottom line, and demand better. The Affordable Heat Act is not perfect, but it is an important step in the right direction, as we continue to push for a full, just transition.

I was happy to see the Affordable Heat Act recently pass the full Senate with a strong majority. As it heads to the House Committee on Environment and Energy, please join me in reaching out to your legislators about why you support S.5, and in calling for the strongest bill possible to support equity, affordability, and a thriving, clean energy future. 

It’s time to end our reliance on expensive and polluting heating sources, while guaranteeing that everyone benefits.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Dan Fingas: All Vermonters deserve clean and affordable heat, and S.5 will deliver.

As Reported by VTDigger