• Dan Jones: We need a thermal efficiency tax
    December 31,2012

    I read with great interest the seemingly rational comments of John McClaughry on the prospect of a thermal efficiency excise tax. I felt his position required an immediate and lively public conversation.

    Seemingly, his Libertarian bottom line was that if increasing energy efficiency and reducing oil consumption was such a good idea, we would all do this ourselves, without help from the state. Why, he asks, do we need a tax from the “nanny state” when the free market will take care of everything, all by itself?

    What McClaughry and others like him refuse to see is that global warming is the ultimate proof of the failure of the free market. We can’t keep sucking scarce oil out of the ground and pushing more carbon into the air without a disastrous cost to our future and our children’s future. If we don’t work to stop global warming with everything we have, storms like Irene will hammer us with increasing frequency.

    The thermal efficiency tax is one of the most equitable ways of doing what we can to battle climate change on a local level, and to continue to serve as a model for the nation. More than 40 percent of our state’s fuel use goes to home heating. Thanks to the work of Efficiency Vermont and the surcharge on electricity that supports it, our state has become a national leader.

    We have saved millions and avoided building new power plants. While the cost per kilowatt is higher here, our bills are lower because of the subsidies for conservation.

    And the savings realized from energy conservation are much greater than stated. Research shows that every $1 invested in this thermal efficiency leads to $5 in savings. That’s a better return than any bank account going.

    Yes, a gallon of heating fuel would cost more with this excise tax, but the yearly savings on a weatherized home will more than make up for it. I personally have seen a 40 percent drop in my home heating prices since I weatherized my house. The investment I made is quickly paying me back. In doing the same, the average homeowner will save enormously on heating costs while helping to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. This is a win-win for everyone.

    I was also fascinated to note that in the course of McClaughry’s argument he also repeated the rather sad delusion that global warming will mean that we need less heating oil anyway. I guess his tag line to that misunderstanding of the real science would then be: “Why bother with this efficiency stuff?”

    Real-world science does not say global warming will overrule the seasons. The earth still tilts and we get less sunlight in winter and therefore cold weather. Not as cold as in yesteryear, but nothing you want to live in without some significant heat source. We may not need as much heat in the future, but this is Vermont, and we will need a bunch. And that heat will be more costly.

    Anything we can do now to cut down our fossil-fuel dependence is a good thing. Rather than a nanny state solution imposing a tax on free marketers, a thermal efficiency excise tax should be seen for what it is: a smart, responsible, investment in a resilient future for us and our children.

    Dan Jones is chairman of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.

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