Energy & Environment

Ambitious proposal seeks to weatherize 120,000 Vermont homes over 10 years

Paul Zabriskie
Paul Zabriskie, program director for weatherization at Capstone Community Action, and Smitty, an energy auditor, search for drafts in the basement of a 19th-century Barre home in 2015. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

The chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy is calling on the state of Vermont to weatherize 120,000 homes over the next 10 years. 

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, plans to unveil the ambitious proposal Tuesday with Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, shortly after Gov. Phil Scott delivers his annual budget address. 

Bray said he hopes Scott will embrace the program, which he’s calling “Warm and Healthy Homes,” as a means to create jobs and combat climate change.

“I think it’s a smart thing to do, and it’s responsive to the moment we’re in,” Bray said. “If I were the governor looking at how am I going to get the job done, great, now I’ve got another tool in my toolbox.”

But the pricetag — an estimated $1.3 billion — has at least one key Democrat questioning whether the state can afford it.

“I’m supportive of weatherization,” said Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “The question is, how do we come up with $1.3 billion?”

Bray, who called the proposal his top priority this session, argued that it’s well-timed to get Vermonters back to work and help them save money on their energy bills. 

Weatherization covers a range of techniques for modifying a building to reduce energy consumption and optimize energy efficiency — such as adding insulation and sealing off air leaks.

The state already has weatherization programs, but they’re not moving fast enough, Bray said — at least partly because they don’t have the funding to do more. The Weatherization Assistance Program covers the cost of helping low-income Vermonters weatherize their homes.

In the past 12 years, it has weatherized about 30,000 homes. 

Bray said that, if all eligible Vermonters wanted to weatherize their homes, there would be “the equivalent of a 52-year waiting list.”

The energy burden

In addition to increasing funding for existing programs, his legislation would make it easier for middle- and upper-income Vermonters to decide on weatherization methods by creating a standardized energy label for homes that are for sale. A buyer could compare the efficiency of homes, and factor the cost of heating a home into the decision to buy it.

Analysts say the average Vermont family spends $5,800 a year on electricity, heat and fuel — with 30% of that, $1,740, going toward heat. While that’s only 3% to 5% of an upper-income family’s spending, it can be closer to 20% for many Vermont households.

Those numbers have raised concerns about the inequitable energy burden such Vermonters face. And those administering the programs have faced barriers to reaching all Vermonters who can benefit from them, such as New Americans; a relatively small percentage have used the weatherization programs.

Scaling up these efforts could make a “meaningful difference” in emissions, Bray said. Heating buildings currently accounts for about 35% of the state’s emissions, second only to transportation, at 45%.

Studies have also shown that weatherization can reduce asthma triggers, such as insect allergens, mold, dust mites and outdoor allergens. Home weatherization is also linked to improved sleep quality, fewer missed days of work, reduced carbon monoxide poisonings and reduced home fires.

Bray has a key ally in Balint, who said through a spokesperson on Monday that she supports the plan. 

“I see expanding Vermont’s weatherization efforts as an ideal strategy to address multiple challenges at once,” Balint said in a written statement. “First and foremost, it’s a public health initiative to keep families safe and warm in their homes.”

‘Silver buckshot’

Balint agreed that weatherization could help reduce household energy costs, while potentially creating jobs. “And of course, it’s an important step towards meeting our climate goals,” she said. “Weatherization can address the immediate needs of Vermonters on fixed and modest incomes while also practically and sensibly addressing our climate crisis.”

The cost of the proposal, however, could be a major obstacle. 

Bray said he hoped to pay for it through several smaller funding streams, rather than one large one. “The funding will be silver buckshot, not silver bullets,” he said.

Several options are on the table, he said, including a thermal energy benefit charge that would be assessed on delivered fuels, such as propane and heating oil, or the use of bonds and a green bank allowing the state to facilitate debt without owning it.

Bray also suggested that financing weatherization could be tied to the house, instead of the owner. If a homeowner sold the house, the new owner would take up payments where the old owner left off.

Cummings, the Senate Finance chair, suggested that legislators could look at whether Covid relief funding might be used to fund weatherization. She expressed skepticism about raising taxes to cover the cost.

“My only problem with taxing the rich is that we’ve done it for every project we want to do for the last 10 years,” Cummings said. “We need to decide if we’re going to go there, what it’s going to be for.”

According to Bray, the money’s already going out the door.

“We already spend $2 billion on energy so it’s not a question of finding money, but how do we use the money we already spent differently,” Bray said, noting that 75% of that leaves the state. 

Bray, who plans to release more details on Tuesday, said he hopes Scott will support the proposal. 

“I’m expecting good news this week from the administration, as well as the legislative side,” said Bray. “I think the governor will be the highest-profile partner and that’s fine because the governor has a natural soapbox and megaphone. If he’s our partner, well, lucky us.”

In a written statement, Scott press secretary Jason Maulucci said the governor has “long been an advocate for weatherization and has proposed and supported increased investments since taking office.” But he stopped short of endorsing the bill. 

“The governor’s office has not seen the details of this $1.3 billion proposal, how exactly the money would be spent, nor how the senator proposes to pay for it,” Maulucci said.

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Amanda Gokee

About Amanda

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at Dartmouth with a concentration in creative writing.

Email: [email protected]

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