Among the initiatives that Burlington residents will be voting on this Town Meeting Day include two climate-themed goals: letting the city regulate residential and thermal energy systems, and doing so with “climate justice” in mind.
The decarbonization initiative, Ballot Question 3, proposes a charter change that allows for local control of building heating systems. Specifically, it would let the city collect “carbon impact” fees from any home or building owner that uses carbon-based fuels. If it passes, voters would decide at a later date what fees to impose, such as during an annual or special meeting.
The idea behind the ballot question is to incentivize the use of electricity — in particular the use of cold-climate electric heat pumps such as currently promoted by Renewable Energy Vermont — to heat buildings. The technology is relatively new compared to its gas and oil counterparts, and performance and cost issues are still being worked out.
The Burlington City Council approved this charter change by a 10-2 vote in December. Councilors Ali Dieng and Franklin Paulino were the lone no-votes.
In October, Mayor Miro Weinberger put forth a proposal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions for Burlington. “Burlington is aggressively leading the country toward this essential and promising vision, and our building electrification proposal represents the City’s next big step forward,” he said.
Another item up for a vote, Ballot Question 7, would advise the city council and mayor’s office to create incentives for non-carbon energy sources for low- and moderate-income residents, yet with a social justice emphasis: a focus on “Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and to otherwise disadvantaged community members.”
Dieng, who is also running for mayor, was one of only two lawmakers to vote against the decarbonization push.
“Regulations should only stay around things that the city controls, such as outside people’s homes — the streets, the sidewalks, the lighting, the police, etc.,” he told True North in an interview Thursday. “But people’s homes are people’s homes, and I do not think that municipal government should have any say into it.”
Dieng said he is open to incentives for building owners to make the switch from gas to electric heat. But he cautioned that any new technology’s performance and cost should be considered.
“The cost associated with this, especially now during COVID-19 — the timing is just not right. Many people cannot afford it,” he said. “I hear from constituents who live in the city, who made it clear that the city has no idea what we are talking about, because some who have tried to do the switch … encountered so much problems.
“[Another issue is] performance of this technology, and it’s not appropriate to see what is happening in LA and try to replicate it here in the cold climate,” he said. ” … In terms of heating, it may be clear that these technologies do not do the work that is needed to really keep people warm during the winter.”
Cold-climate heat pumps are a new and developing technology, and are more costly than natural gas systems.
“Because of the high cost of electricity in many areas, heat pumps are usually more expensive to operate in winter than a gas furnace,” a BuildingAdvisor.com report states. “Compared to oil or propane heat, however, heat pumps are almost always less expensive to operate, unless electric rates are very high.”
Matt Cota, the Executive Director of Vermont Fuel, wrote in a commentary Thursday that recent weather events have exposed the fact that new electric technology is still developing.
“An energy spike in Texas [is] causing rolling blackouts, leaving 2 million people without power, cold and in the dark. Here in Vermont, many homeowners that have an electric air source heat pump received an email warning on February 12 that their utility will ‘manage’ the device remotely to lower energy consumption during peak demand.”