By Rob Roper
Proponents of the “Rube Goldberg” carbon tax scheme that is the Clean Heat Standard (CHS) argue that the revenue raised from the mandated purchase of “carbon credits” by fossil fuel dealers will be used to aid — read subsidize — the transition of everyone from fossil-based home and water heating systems to electric based technology, but with a special emphasis on helping low-income Vermonters. While some lucky low-income Vermonters may come out ahead under this set up, most will be critically harmed by it.
The revenue used to pay for any subsidies to anybody Vermonters, which will in total require billions of dollars, will ultimately come out of the pockets of people who heat with oil, propane, natural gas, and kerosene. And that is disproportionately, you guessed it, low-income Vermonters.
Currently, about 80% of Vermont households heat with fossil-based fuels. And, while it’s true that members of all income groups certainly use fossil fuels to some degree for heating their homes and water and to cook, wealthier Vermonters have already been adopting alternatives to petroleum, and, if they haven’t yet, are in a much better position to do so more quickly should rising fossil fuel prices become prohibitive.
The dynamic that will be established by this law should it survive this week’s veto vote is that low-income Vermonters who are less able to rapidly move away from their fossil fuel-based systems will end up footing the bill for Clean Heat Measures (CHM) – installation of heat pumps, weatherizing homes, swapping out gas appliances for electric, etc. – that benefit mostly their wealthier neighbors. I believe the popular term for programs like S.5 these days is “wealthfare.”
Here supporters of the CHS will protest that language in the bill protects and prioritizes low-and-middle income Vermonters. Read the fine print.
The bill does stipulate that 16 percent of CHMs must take place in low-income households, and another 16 percent in either low- or middle-income households. But, read just a little further where it says, “to the extent reasonably possible,”… and “the [Public Utilities] Commission shall have authority to change the percentages established… for good cause,” like it’s too expensive or too complicated to help. And it will be both of those things.
So, low income Vermonters, we’ve totally got your back unless it’s not really practicable for us to have your back. In that case, good luck with everything and remember we meant well. Vote for us again in November 2024!
As supporters of the Clean Heat Standard are quick to point out, many wealthier households that can afford the hefty upfront costs of installing an electric heat pump system, or high-end wood pellet boiler have already made these investments. Therefore, these wealthier households that no longer rely on fossil fuels won’t be paying any of the costs associated with the Clean Heat Standard. If you don’t buy fossil fuels, you don’t pay the surcharge on fossil fuels.
However, Vermonters still stuck using oil, etc. will be picking up that tab via increasingly higher home heating fuel prices — prices that, by design, will go up every year as the people who are able to stop using fossil heating fuels stop paying into the program.
As soon as the mandatory carbon credit scheme goes into effect, prices of oil, propane, natural gas, and kerosene will skyrocket (Look for an upcoming article: Lie #2, The CHS will only add pennies to the cost of heating fuel for detailed analysis.) This will certainly cause some Vermonters to look for less expensive alternatives, but not everybody who wants to switch will be able to do so — in particular, low-income Vermonters. There are multiple reasons for this.
First, even the strongest advocates for the Clean Heat Standard acknowledge that the trained labor force necessary to do all the CHMs required under the law does not exist. There are about 750 technicians currently in Vermont who can install the heat pumps and do the weatherization, but we need, according to the Energy Action Network, over 6000 by 2025. Clearly that is not happening. When those workers do not appear, many Vermonters who may want to avoid the higher fossil fuel costs caused by the law will find themselves on a waiting list for heat pumps and weatherization that will likely be years long.
To illustrate this point, Senator Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) testified in his committee that he purchased a $20,000 advanced wood pellet system two years ago and it has been sitting in his yard since then waiting for someone to become available to hook it up. Even with current levels of demand for this technology, Efficiency Vermont, Capstone, and other organizations that perform this work testified that they are not able to meet their existing targets due to lack of a trained workforce. There is no way they will be able to meet future demand spurred by this program. In the meantime, all those folks waiting for their installations and weatherizations will be paying higher and higher costs to heat their homes.
So what lucky souls will be able to jump to the front of this labor line? Those who can afford to pay the upfront costs of the transitions on their own immediately. No waiting for financial aid applications to be processed and awarded. No waiting for the revenue to accumulate in the program necessary to fund a needed subsidy. By the time the stars align for low-income Vermonters, it will be too late to benefit, and they will just be stuck paying for whatever subsidies are enjoyed by those ahead of them in line.
Another major issue affecting low-income Vermonters is that the kinds of housing folks in this demographic disproportionately live in cannot under any circumstances be retrofitted with heat pumps. 20,000 Vermont families live in mobile homes. Multiple experts testified that you cannot safely put heat pumps into a mobile home as it is both a fire hazard and leads to frozen pipes in winter. This adds injury on top of injury as mobile homeowners are reliant on the most expensive of fossil fuels, kerosene, in cold winter weather. So, on top of that harsh reality, they will pay steeply into this Clean Heat Standard program with no chance of benefiting from it.
Other types of housing pose serious complications as well. Multi-unit apartment buildings are often not suitable for conversion to heat pumps, and old housing stock that is poorly insulated and not constructed on open floor plans — like much of the housing found throughout most of rural Vermont — isn’t conducive to this technology either. At least not without major, expensive renovation. Again, this is the type of housing low-income Vermonters are more likely to find themselves in.
This program is extremely expensive and extremely regressive. It will cause a lot of pain for Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens. And the worst part of it all is that all this pain and expense will achieve exactly NOTHING in regard to “solving” global warming.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com