Efficiency Vermont Pushes Energy Challenge

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Fran Putnam (second from left) hosts a workshop with fellow energy activists. (Courtesy Weybridge Energy Committee)

As homeowners in the area consider their energy bills, the questions of what fuel to use, whether or not it will be renewable and how much it will cost are constantly arising. Yet while some might save by switching fuel types, the strategy of using less energy overall by improving a home’s efficiency has become increasingly popular among environmentalists and cost-savers alike.

In January, Efficiency Vermont announced the Vermont Home Energy Challenge in the hopes that it would jumpstart the state’s push towards energy efficiency. In Vermont’s 2011 Comprehensive Energy Plan, the state outlined a specific goal of improving the efficiency of 80,000 homes by 25 percent before 2020. The contest promises a $10,000 prize for an energy improvement project to any town that manages to weatherize three percent of its homes by the end of the year.

“Seventy-seven towns have signed up from all corners of the state,” said Paul Markowitz, Efficiency Vermont’s community energy program manager. “We’ve had probably 250 or 300 volunteers who were trained to organize and reach out to their community.”

Four months into the challenge, however, the statistics are showing just how challenging the three percent target is for towns. While many town organizers have made great strides in encouraging their neighbors to make energy pledges — or written commitments to any number of energy-saving home alternatives — few towns have moved beyond five or 10 percent of their actual weatherization goal.

“In terms of the level of activity, it really varies,” said Markowitz. “We have some [towns] like Middlebury and Weybridge that have been really active in terms of engaging their residents and other communities that have been slower.”

Admittedly, places like Weybridge have the advantage of having small populations where three percent translates to only a handful of homes; a city like Burlington, on the other hand, needs to weatherize over 500 homes in order to win the cash prize.
Yet for many involved, this cash prize is secondary to the overall goal of addressing climate change by reducing energy-use at the consumer level.

“Personally, my commitment is to address climate change,” said Fran Putnam, the lead volunteer in Weybridge. “I really wanted to take another step and move out into the community.”

After the construction of a zero-net-energy home with her husband and working on offering different green energy workshops in Weybridge, Putnam decided to involve herself and her community of activists in the home energy challenge as a way to reach out to a broader range of community members.

“We signed up to enter the challenge in January,” said Putnam. “We have a very active energy committee in Weybridge [that] formed in October, 2011. We had already done some projects together and we were looking for a new challenge.”

The group had been successful in persuading workshop participants to make lifestyle and housing changes to benefit the climate in previous years, but attendance was consistently low.

“We were looking for a new way to get the word out and just at that time, Efficiency Vermont started the Vermont Home Energy Challenge and we said, ‘this is perfect for us,’” said Putnam.

As a result of these volunteer efforts, 38 Weybridge residents have made pledges to reduce their energy use in some way, and one resident has completed a full efficiency upgrade.

“This town is a great town to be working in because people are so receptive,” said Putnam.

The process involves a free initial audit from local volunteers, followed by a $100 professional audit, and then the project itself, which generally cost between $5,000 and $10,000 after state and federal incentives.

The main driver for most homeowners to pursue efficiency upgrades is the predicted savings on their heating bills. Most projects save around $1,000 to $2,000 a year on energy bills, depending on the preexisting level of energy efficiency.

While the return is certainly higher than what a savings account might offer, the amount of upfront capital required to move forward with a project has been prohibitive for some.

“Right now, we’re able to offer an incentive after a job is completed of up to $2,000, said Kelly Lucci, Efficiency Vermont’s manager of public affairs and communications, “but, unfortunately, it’s not going to [help] decrease the up-front costs for folks who are on the lower-income side of the scale, [yet] still make too much money to benefit from the weatherization program, which targets very low-income folks and provides those services for free.”

In addition to those who may not be able to raise the funds necessary for a project of this scope, there are many other kinds of Vermont residents who are not being reached through this home energy challenge. For instance, seasonal homes have been excluded from the competition, while renters and mobile home owners continue to prove a challenge for efficiency-minded folks in Montpelier and across the state.

In order for Vermont to see a quarter of its year-round homes weatherized by 2020, it seems likely that they will have to further address the high upfront cost of insulating and air sealing a home, yet in the meantime, Efficiency Vermont officials are hopeful that there are enough people out there who can raise the capital to get the ball rolling.

“There are a number of people who may be in a better position to make these investments than they think,” said Lucci, “and the idea is to mobilize these town energy committees and to work through VECAN [the Vermont Energy & Climate Action Network], knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, and explaining the resources that are currently available.”

“You do have to spend some money to do this,” admitted Putnam, “but we’re trying to motivate people to use less energy by helping them see that it makes sense financially.”

In Middlebury, Vt. volunteers like Laura Asermily have also put in a great deal of work to promote the town’s energy efficiency goals. In order to succeed in the competition, the town needs to weatherize 91 homes in contrast with Weybridge’s 10 homes.

Outreach efforts have included lawn signs, tabling, neighbor-to-neighbor dialogue and even a new show on Middlebury Community Television (MCTV) that shares testimonials from residents who have completed efficiency work and seen the savings it can create.

The outreach team has also looked to some larger businesses in town to join in with the project.

“We’ve approached Middlebury College and other large employers like Porter Hospital, but these things take time.”

Because the College operates huge number of residential buildings for faculty and students in town and because of its carbon neutrality pledge, it appears as though this would be a good match. Yet thus far, Asermily and her team of volunteers have not been able to bring the College on board.

“I approached the staff council and was able to present to the staff council what the home energy challenge was,” said Asermily. “I asked for their guidance about how I could get the word out to staff. They suggested that I come in to do a learning lunch, or to canvas faculty staff at the Grille; I tried to do that but I was declined.”

In spite of this small roadblock, Asermily hopes to continue to work with the College to address this need for efficiency upgrades. The College has set up a Green Revolving Fund of one million dollars to power energy saving initiatives as a result of Efficiency Vermont’s efforts in 2011, so it may be that this fund will someday provide capital for smaller home efficiency projects of this nature. The money will revolve as these capital-intensive energy project begin to pay for themselves in energy savings, allowing the College to put those savings toward a new initiative down the line.

“Vermont’s housing stock is among the oldest in the country, so there’s certainly a lot of potential to improve the efficiency of Vermont homes, and save a lot of money on heating bills,” concluded Lucci.