This year is shaping up to be a pivotal year for Efficiency Vermont, the state’s program to help reduce energy usage.
The program has $2.6 million available ($2.25 million from project savings) to help fund home weatherization projects through 2020. In addition, the Vermont Legislature has ordered a review of the various energy-efficiency programs in the state, including Efficiency Vermont, to determine what the state should do next.
Efficiency Vermont was created by the Legislature in 2000 with a goal to help Vermonters reduce their electricity usage. The program provides energy-use assessments, low-interest financing to help pay for energy-saving improvements, assistance for renovations and construction, and technical support to private citizens and businesses.
Last winter, Vermont lawmakers passed legislation (Act 62) that directs Efficiency Vermont to use $2.25 million in savings and $350,000 in new money for weatherization incentives for moderate-income Vermonters. The new law also directs the Public Utility Commission, or PUC, to make recommendations concerning various issues, including whether an all-fuels efficiency program should be created, and whether efficiency programs and services should be expanded to include strategies such as storage and demand response. The PUC is required to issue a preliminary report in January 2020 and a final report in January 2021.
According to Abby White, Efficiency Vermont’s director of public affairs, EV will pay up to $60 per month for home weatherization projects that will lower heating and cooling costs. The state hopes to double the number of Vermonters who enroll in the Home Performance with Energy Star program and weatherize their homes by the end of 2020.
The program provides incentives for customers who work with qualified contractors — members of the Efficiency Excellence Network — to complete comprehensive projects to improve insulation, air sealing and ventilation systems. The average project can save $500 a year in home heating and cooling costs for homes heated with oil, according to Jeff Buell, EV public relations manager.
Approximately 60 percent of Vermont families would qualify. A family of four would qualify with a pretax income up to $111,600 in Chittenden and Franklin counties and would qualify with an income up to $95,600 in the rest of the state.
“It’s a great program. By working with Efficiency Vermont, I saved about a third on my project,” said Luke Aither, assistant principal at Spaulding High School in Barre. Aither worked with Efficiency Vermont to find an approved contractor and to secure a low-interest loan for a heat pump that helps heat and cool his house more efficiently.
Not everyone is happy with Efficiency Vermont or convinced that the program has helped lower Vermont’s carbon footprint or saved money for consumers of electricity..
“Under their watch, there is no clear progress in lowering Vermont’s electric use,” said Andrew Rudin, an energy consultant who operates a website titled, “Efficology” a word he coined to mean “the study of efficiency.” According to Rudin, EV exaggerates the impact its programs have had on energy savings and, he says, “Energy-intensive industries are motivated to leave Vermont to seek lower-cost electricity.”
“Vermont’s average retail price for electricity is 14.6 cents. Pennsylvania is 10.2 cents, Maine is 13.2 cents and Delaware is 10.3 cents. Efficiency Vermont’s tax on every kilowatt hour of Vermont electricity does not help,” he said.
According to White, prior to Efficiency Vermont, electric rates here were the highest in New England, and are now the second lowest. In addition, thousands of Vermonters save because they are using less electricity.
Rudin also is strongly opposed to funding EV through an assessment on consumers’ electric bills. All electric consumers pay $0.01371 for every kilowatt hour used. For a customer using an average of 500 kilowatts per month, the EV assessment is $6.85. Efficiency Vermont is mainly funded through the electricity usage assessment ($50 million of its $63 million). The rest is from revenues from the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and from the sale of efficiency savings to New England’s forward capacity market.
Last winter, Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, introduced legislation (H. 242), at the request of a constituent, that would make the Efficiency Vermont payment voluntary.
“My guess would be no, it doesn’t have much of a chance, given the fact that it did not get a hearing last year. I am in hopes it can get the discussion started,” he said.
On the other side, Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington, is the lead sponsor for legislation (H. 18) that would require electric companies to explain the advantages of funding Efficiency Vermont.
“People see only the cost on their bill and not the benefit, so they are only getting half the story,” she said.
Rep. Timothy Briglin, D-Thetford, a strong supporter of Efficiency Vermont and a lead sponsor for Act 62, disagrees with Rudin. “In its two decades of existence, Efficiency Vermont’s pioneering work has not only helped Vermonters reduce their electricity consumption, it has helped reduce the cost of electricity in the state. With the urgent need to reduce, and ultimately eliminate our consumption of fossil fuels, we have entered a new phase in our energy economy,” he said.
Act 62 orders the PUC to assess all current energy-efficiency programs (Efficiency Vermont, Burlington Electric Department, and Vermont Gas) and review the energy-efficiency targets for the state’s 13 utilities and provide guidance concerning what should be done in the future.
According to Tom Knauer, policy director for the PUC, the investigation will be conducted through a series of written filings and workshops with stakeholders, with each cycle of filings and workshops addressing specific topics.
“My goal for the proceeding is to provide lawmakers with thoughtful, practical and actionable recommendations for energy-related programs and services that will best serve Vermonters’ needs and are oriented towards Vermont’s policy goals,” he said.