Cecile Betit: More work needed before S.5 becomes Vermont law

Published in Vermont Digger on February 3, 2023

In respectfully submitting this commentary to Vermont Digger, I urge Vermonters to read and become involved in strengthening S-5 “The Affordable Care Act” I ask legislators to pause passage of S-5 to ensure that adequate infrastructure is in place for its effective implementation.

S-5 is important enough to the future of Vermont to take the time to do it well.  A pause in the legislative process for S-5 can allow for adequate infrastructures to be put in place to meet Vermonters’ needs while achieving the environmental goals of the bill.

The Vermont Climate Council made recommendations toward legislation. The draft of the current bill, S-5 is designed to reduce the thermal sector of greenhouse gas emissions. Importantly, it also offers a place to begin the real work of engaging Vermonters in addressing the future for climate change, air pollution, renewable energy, heating fuel, etc.

I am very supportive of the goals in S-5. However, in reading and learning about the bill, I am concerned at the possibility that it may become law too quickly. Before this bill is passed legislators need to address:  

1. Change impacts on:     

     a. The 58% (some say 70%) of Vermonters using petroleum (oil, natural gas, propane and kerosene) products to heat their homes.   

     b. Families experiencing hardships. See Vermont Business Magazine’s “State of Vermont’s Children: 2022 Year in Review”                                                                  ( port-gives-insights-and-recommendations-child-well-being-vermont)   

    c. The Vermont population (by numbers or percentage):

      • Population                                                           640,000
      • Households                                                            62,514
      • Employer establishments                                20,540
      • Person 65 and over (fixed income??)                20.6%  
      • Median Household Income 2017-2021    $67,674
      • Per capita income 2017-2021                          $37,903
      • In civilian work force 16+                                      64.9%
      • Persons at poverty level                                          10,3%
      • Persons with disability                                            10.4%
      • Persons without health insurance                          4.5%


2. The serious change in daily life that will be experienced for those living in Vermont. To address these, certain prerequisites need to be met before implementation of S-5 within its statewide mandate:

    a.  A feasibility study, analyses and plans re stated affordability goals.

    b.  Information sources for citizens about the costs of the technology and energy alternative availability.

    c.  Guidance and assistance for those who will lose their livelihoods.

    d.  Infrastructure planning such as the following suggestions:

  •    Convene local and state-wide task forces, comprised of experts and representatives of Vermont’s businesses, socio-economic and interest groups to develop infrastructure for the transition and implementation of the bill, Vermont’s long- term environmental needs and energy goals. Several Vermont groups have experience developing inquiry and working processes within widely diverse groups to meet specific goals.
  •     Ask foundations to fund data collection, education and short documentaries to bridge the information and affordability gaps as well as to provide incentives for use of alternative energy sources, preparing applications, developing efficiencies, etc.

3.    The investment and incentives needed to create affordable energy alternatives. In reality, few affordable alternative energy choices are in place for average home owners.                 

4.    The gap in Efficiency Vermont’s programs that put them out of reach for many. How many Vermonters couldn’t afford heat pumps even with the rebates and/or whose electrical service was inadequate for them? Pellet furnaces/hoppers with rebates and assistance are out of the economic reach of many Vermonters; installations can be delayed for months.

5.     The increasing dependence on electricity and the promotion of heat pumps, electric cars, etc. requires investment in additional, diverse and perhaps even redundant ways to transmit electricity to reduce failure in bad weather as well as mechanisms to protect our local grids from harm.

6.     The mistake made in assigning responsibility to the Public Utility Commission for S-5 implementation. The PUC offers little opportunity for public input, accountability and follow-up. Its ineffectiveness in representing Vermonters when industry and politics collided is public information. Follow the unfolding trajectory of broadband, fiber optics and telecommunications to see how easily the PUC gave up Vermonters’ E911 safety net among other assets.

7.     The criteria and open process review (whether through proposals or sought expertise or population experience) used to designate an appropriate group to oversee the S-5 implementation with full range of transparency, public involvement and accountability.

8.    Additional means for achieving S-5 and environmental goals such as encouraging old forest growth on public and private lands, reforestation and greater efficiencies. See : the Vermont State Energy Profile.

9.     How S-5 with its proposed changes, links these to the shared sense of place and love of Vermont that has been such an important part of the story of our lives on this land. In that spirit, we as Vermonters, can take the time to be good citizens to make changes in S-5 through the legislative process.

As currently designed for the long term, S-5 does not encourage collaborative, cooperative state-wide efforts needed for Vermont’s future. Changes are needed for these and to make the law practical, evoke less drama and give more time for reflective and effective implementation, voice and involvement by Vermont citizens and certainly be less top down. Let us pause to do the necessary work well in S-5 for Vermonters in our shared  environment.