With rising oil prices, we knew in early May, when the Legislature adjourned, that Vermonters would be facing a very difficult winter later this year for heating their homes. With high home heating fuel prices and a troubled economy, the prospect of a difficult winter will become a crisis for some Vermont families.
We did some good things during the legislative session, but it’s not going to be enough for many Vermont residents. Vermont’s Weatherization Assistance Program performs energy audits and home improvements to reduce energy use for roughly 1,400 homes of low income Vermonters each year. There are 49,000 homes owned by Vermonters who have low incomes that qualify for the program, but have not yet received weatherization services.
The Energy Efficiency and Affordability Act, which was signed by Gov. Jim Douglas in April, improved the Weatherization program. Less than 20% of funds for Weatherization come from federal sources, and more than 80% of the program is funded from Vermont’s fuel gross receipts tax on heating fuel. Because of the federal funding, the Weatherization program has been following federal rules which have sometimes presented obstacles to providing needed services.
This year, we acted to permit the Weatherization program to use state dollars to provide weatherization services that don’t conform exactly to the federal rules. The new law increases eligibility for the program from 60% of Vermont median income to 60% of the area median income or the Vermont median income, whichever is higher. This is particularly helpful in Chittenden County where area median income is higher than statewide median income. It eases rules for providing weatherization services to renters. It provides that weatherization services may include converting to another fuel and provides more flexibility to achieve greater energy savings.
Funding was increased by 12% for the Weatherization program. A larger increase was considered, but we received testimony in the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee that the Weatherization program can increase its services, with additional funding, by roughly 10% each year. Larger increases in funding would present difficult challenges to spending the money responsibly.
The Energy Efficiency and Affordability Act also establishes a new all fuels efficiency program. When this program is implemented, it will provide more services for reducing energy costs.Gov. Douglas has formed a task force to coordinate federal, state, local, and private resources to help Vermonters to reduce energy use and to manage increasing energy costs. Vermonters can call 1-800-622-4496 or go to www.helpforvt.org for help with weatherization and energy problems.