Setting priorities for a climate solution

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As with most adages, there's truth to the one we hear a lot: Vermont can be an expensive place to live. After we pay the rent or mortgage, taxes, health care, transportation and heating, there's often not much left over. It's a fact of our rural economy. But that's no reason to pack up and head off to some urban nirvana. (It can be expensive there, too, by the way.)

Instead, let's take a look at some of the things we can do to bring down a few of the high costs all of us face - and to improve the Vermont economy at the same time. How? Let's tackle two of the big cost drivers — transportation and heating — in a way that recognizes our Vermont traditions of innovation and respect for our rural lifestyle.

Because of where we live, Vermonters drive. A lot. With little public transportation and a dispersed population Vermonters rely heavily on their cars to run errands, bring kids to school, and get to work. Even with gas hovering around $2 a gallon, this is not cheap. Fueling up cars and keeping them maintained is a significant expense for Vermont families. Half of the money that Vermonters spend on energy goes to transportation, with a typical family spending $2,500 every year to fill up the tank.

Electric vehicles have to be a big part of the solution. They're not just for the rich, you know. There are affordable models out there and a growing inventory of used electrics. We need to dispel the myth that electric vehicles are elitist. These cars can save Vermonters — all of us — money on both fuel and maintenance. Electric vehicles can save a car owner $1,200 or more on maintenance costs and will guard against increases and fluctuations in the price of gas. Electricity prices tend to be more stable and grow much more slowly. Additionally, driving electric vehicles will make Vermont more energy independent. Approximately $1.1 billion was spent in Vermont on gas in 2010. If all of that travel had been powered with electricity, the cost would have been $275 million — saving more than $800 million annually. That $800 million and a large portion of the electricity cost would have remained here in Vermont rather than flowing to other states and overseas.

Vermonters don't just drive a lot. We also have to heat our homes. And this is also an expensive endeavor. The average Vermont household spends roughly $1,200 every year to heat their home. For some, it's the second highest bill after mortgage payments or health insurance. A 2014 report on the energy costs and burdens in Vermont1 estimated that 1 in 5 Vermonters (or 125,000 of our neighbors) lives in fuel poverty — spending more than 10 percent of their monthly income on energy.

Luckily for us there is a solution to this challenge as well: Keep the heat in your house. Weatherizing homes can save Vermonters a significant amount of money. The median household energy savings of fully weatherizing a home in Vermont is $900 per year. And as with driving electric vehicles, weatherizing our buildings will keep money in the Vermont economy. In 2013, Vermonters paid more than $500 million to import and use fossil-based heating fuels — most of this money left the Vermont economy. What's more, Vermont's weatherization program creates good paying jobs for Vermont electricians, builders, plumbers and other contractors, significantly helping our working families and rural economy.

Relying on Vermonters' well-deserved reputation for frugality and creativity, these challenges don't have to be insurmountable ... The high costs of transportation and heating and the fate of our rural economy are challenges we can and should address. The Climate Economy Action Team is encouraging lawmakers to provide solutions to these challenges by waiving the sales tax towards the purchase of electric vehicles, building a program to help low-to-moderate income Vermonters enter the electric vehicle market by creating an incentive for new or used electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids and doubling Vermont's Weatherization Program. Please join us by reaching out to your lawmakers and asking them to pass legislation that includes these important components. Doing so will make Vermont more affordable and make our rural economy healthier.

Ross Sneyd is director of corporate communications at National Life and a member of the Climate Economy Action Team.

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