Fuel dealers, customers balk at clean heat proposal

Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 6:12 PM EST
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JEFFERSONVILLE, Vt. (WCAX) - This week’s deep freeze has a lot of Vermonters making sure their heating fuels are topped off and furnaces ready to kick on. And for some fuel dealers and customers, it’s also renewed interest in a legislative proposal aimed at phasing out one of the state’s biggest contributors to climate-heating emissions.

The Affordable Heat Act -- formerly known as the Clean Heat Standard -- would provide incentives to fuel dealers and utilities for helping customers weatherize or switch to eco-friendly heating sources like cold air heat pumps.

But over time, critics say it would increase prices for fuel importers, which would then trickle down to customers.

Jennifer Bishop, the owner of the Farm Store in Jeffersonville, says her propane comes at a very real cost but is essential to business. “Can’t imagine another increase, we are kind of maxed out,” she said. “We have a bakery so we are running the propane all the time.”

Bishop says that even with incentives or rebates, she can’t afford greener heating alternatives like heat pumps, which can cost upwards of $6,000. She’s also worried weatherizing would be too expensive, too.

“They’ll feel that -- they are really sensitive. I have conversations about price with people on a regular basis,” said Paul Beauregard with OnSite Propane in Cambridge. He says his customers already can’t afford the cost of heat and worries the proposed law could make that worse. “We have 18 pages of people who are already behind on their payments, and we understand that... This is another kick in the wallet they don’t need -- they don’t need and can’t afford.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over three-quarters of Vermonters in 2021 were still heating with fossil fuels. If approved, It’s not clear how much more those customers would pay if they can’t go green.

“We need to know a real cost if we are going to be able to do that and that’s not something Montpelier has been able to give up,” Beauregard said.

But the Vermont Climate Council’s Jared Duval says the measure is designed to make green options more affordable and that it shouldn’t hurt those who can’t make an immediate investment. “Helping people access more affordable energy choices and get off the rollercoaster of high-cost fossil fuels,” he said. “It lets you choose whatever you want to do and makes sure there are more affordable and accessible alternatives to fossil fuel.”

Bishop says no matter what a cost increase would look like, someone has to pay it. “Every time there is an increase on my end and I have to increase something and somebody can’t afford to get it, I lose, they lose,” she said.

Democrats last year failed to override Governor Phil Scott’s veto of a similar thermal energy bill. Now, with a new larger majority, they say it is a top priority.

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