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Looking out for our neighbors this winter

by Jim Merriam, Director of Efficiency Vermont

As the air turns crisp and the snowflakes have started to fly, I’ve been thinking a lot about what winter means in Vermont. A few weeks ago, we talked about the fun side of the season – but this week I’d like to take some time to note that for many of our friends and neighbors the prospect of winter can be downright frightening.

Out in the cold

It should come as no surprise to learn that energy costs have a much greater impact on low and moderate income households: when energy prices rise, they are the first to feel the pressure – and they often face very difficult choices in seeking to keep warm and safe during the winter months. According to a 2009 survey of households that received support from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), more than 30% of recipients reported either forgoing food or medications in order to pay their energy bills. Nationally, the home heating burden (or the share of household income that is spent on heating) is twice as high for low income households than for the average household

In Vermont, our housing stock is among the oldest in the United States, which presents even more challenges. This means that the majority of homes – both rented and owned – were built prior to 1979 when housing codes were less stringent and many energy efficiency technologies commonly employed today were simply not available. These buildings are literally leaking energy every day – and the people who occupy them are rendered ever more vulnerable to increasing energy costs. 

Buttoning up 

Over the last three and a half decades the Weatherization Assistance Program, funded by the US Department of Energy, has worked to help more than 6.4 million low income households tighten up their homes, and significantly lower their energy bills. Unfortunately, despite its massive benefits, federal funding for this program has been inconsistent at best: in fact, as of last year, the federal government contribution to Vermont’s weatherization programs was reduced to zero. Thankfully, Vermont provides state funding to support its five weatherization service providers, but the demand for services still far outstrips supply– and there are many households currently on waiting lists for weatherization services. 

The Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (the nonprofit that operates Efficiency Vermont) focused many of its early efforts on improving the efficiency of affordable housing developments. Our current projects have built on these roots, and have grown to encompass a myriad of other efforts related to energy. But it is because of this history - and our experience that energy savings have a lasting and positive impact on homes and communities - that we have worked hard to build partnerships with Vermont’s weatherization and housing agencies in order to support the great work that they do every single day

True energy independence 

It is easy to discuss this topic in the abstract, but I want to use the last lines of this post to share two stories that I think sum up what all of this really means to our friends and neighbors. The Vermonters quoted below participated in the Major Appliance Retrofit Service (MARS) program – a partnership effort between Efficiency Vermont and the state’s weatherization programs. The tone of our political debates and the endless funding battles in Washington and Montpelier may cause us to think these problems cannot be solved. But at the end of the day, the impact is really that simple - and powerful. 

"My teenaged daughter has cancer; I had to keep her medicine in an ice chest because my refrigerator was not keeping it cold enough. The new one will make so much difference for us."
-Parent from Derby
"I received my new refrigerator just after Christmas. After the deliveryman left I was so happy; I sat down and cried. Programs like this are enough to make you believe that someone really does care."
-Client from Glover


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