Senate approves Affordable Heat Act

Published: Mar. 2, 2023 at 6:45 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2023 at 1:54 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont Senate Friday gave final approval to a bill that could change how Vermonters heat their homes, as well as potentially slash the state’s contribution of fossil fuel emissions that contribute to warming the climate. Lawmakers voted 19 to 10 on the Affordable Heat Act, but that wasn’t before some changes Thursday that would require further study of how much the measure will cost.

Friday’s vote was the culmination of months of work, hundreds of hours of testimony, and thousands of constituent letters.

“Big oil is not going to help us. We are going to have to help ourselves,” said Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison County, whose Natural Resources Committee was instrumental in steering the bill forward.

Floor debate over the future of clean energy centered on balancing the financial costs of transitioning the state’s fossil fuel diet in a way that won’t harm low-income Vermonters. It’s something fuel dealers -- many who showed up to oppose the bill -- worry will sink their businesses.

“It isn’t the war in Ukraine, it isn’t a natural disaster, it isn’t a lack of energy that’s causing them -- or going to cause them -- to struggle more. It’s politics, it’s just plain politics,” said Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex-Orleans Counties.

But supporters say the transition is long overdue and that continuing in a system that leans on big oil only hurts Vermonters more in the long run. “It makes me question if we are doing our due diligence as a government to support them and regulate the industry that has profited off of them and profited off of pollution,” said Sen. Becca White, D-Windsor County.

The bill would create a marketplace of credits that fuel dealers and others can earn through installing eco-friendly forms of home heating and making it more expensive to heat with fossil fuels over time.

“You want to have good flannels and blankets if all you’re going to heat with up north is a heat pump,” said Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans Counties.

Ditching fossil fuels is expected to save $6 billion by 2050. But there are many unknowns, including the upfront cost on Vermonters and their energy bills. So senators advanced the bill with the caveat that the Vermont Public Utility Commission spend the next two years studying and designing the new credit marketplace.

“We are evaluating everything. We will not proceed until we have a solid analysis that the program will do what we intended it to do -- save Vermonters money while reducing emissions,” Sen. Bray said.

The bill is been seen as the best way to achieve the state’s legally mandated carbon reduction goals under the Global Warming Solutions Act. The bill now heads to the House.

There’s no word yet on whether the latest changes will earn support from Governor Phil Scott, who vetoed a similar bill last year. But with a new slate of lawmakers this year, the Senate could potentially override another veto.

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