This newspaper op-ed piece was written for a client as part of an outreach campaign.
Will the State of Vermont Invest in A Clean Energy Future This Legislative Session?
By Scott Johnstone
Vermont is the national leader in conserving energy and achieving a sustainable energy solution. Such a future will provide huge benefits for the health of Vermonters and our beautiful landscape. We need to continue our strong leadership in this area. One of the key ways we can do this is to continue to invest in Vermont’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP).
Vermonters who heat their homes with oil have seen their costs tumble by more than 30%, compared to a year ago. Prices for other heating fuels — including propane and kerosene — are also down significantly. A tiny portion of these savings (less than $9 to the average Vermont homeowner) needs to be reinvested in the WAP. This investment will pay big returns, in terms of fighting climate change and improving the lives of low-income Vermonters.
Vermont’s WAP works extremely well. In fact, a recent Department of Energy national evaluation recognized the weatherization program run by Capstone Community Action (which serves Lamoille, Orange, and Washington counties) for its efficiency and effectiveness. Every work day, WAP crews from five community action agencies fan out across Vermont to improve homes owned by low-income families who qualify for assistance. They add insulation to walls and attics, seal up air leaks, and weatherstrip around doors and windows. Their work reduces the amount of fuel each home burns by 150 to 230 gallons a year, cutting household energy costs by hundreds of dollars and reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Families who live in weatherized homes have a healthier environment and are at less risk of getting sick because of cold and mold.
The problem is that funding for WAP is evaporating. Last year, the program’s funding was cut from $11 million to $8 million a year when money ran out from the federal ARRA economic stimulus funds and the merger between Green Mountain Power and CVPS. The Vermont Legislature declined to save the program from cutbacks, which meant that 65 full-time equivalent positions were lost and almost 400 fewer homes are weatherized per year. On top of that, the gross receipts tax on fuel sales – which generates most of the remaining money for weatherization – has been producing $1.2 million a year less revenue because of declining fuel prices.
Thus, all told, Vermont’s WAP has seen about a 40% loss in funding in just one year. At current funding levels, only 630 homes can be weatherized a year. That is simply not enough to meet the need. Low income Vermonters are stuck with large fuel bills because they may have to wait 3 to 4 years for weatherization. Further, as a state, we’re falling far short of the Legislature’s goal of weatherizing 20,000 low-income homes by 2020.
There is a simple solution to stop the bleeding of our weatherization program. By increasing the gross receipts tax (GRT) on heating fuels from 0.5% to 1%, the state of Vermont will raise an estimated $3.5 million to $4 million a year for weatherization and restore funding to previous levels. For the average Vermont homeowner heating their home with oil, this will mean an investment of less than $9/year. With an increase of the GRT to 1%, the Vermont Legislature can increase energy efficiency, protect our environment, and improve the health and safety of low-income Vermonters. I can think of no more worthwhile investment at this time for our clean energy future.
Scott Johnstone is the executive director of Vermont Energy Investment Corporation in Burlington.