Modernizing Energy Efficiency

by Rebecca Foster, Director, Efficiency Vermont

It's time to modernize how we think about energy efficiency. A lot has changed since the Vermont Legislature voted to create Efficiency Vermont in 1999. Back then, our cellphones were the size of bricks, if we had them. Google was still in its Beta phase, and you had to wait through minutes of buzzes and dial tones before connecting to the internet.

When it came to electricity, our regional grid relied heavily on fossil fuel generation. We were using more electricity every year, which required expensive investments in electric infrastructure. Electricity was costly and polluting and there was a clear mandate for reducing how much of it we used. That set the stage for Efficiency Vermont, a statewide efficiency utility with the singular mission of helping Vermonters reduce their electricity use.

Fast forward to 2019. Now our cellphones are portals to the internet and Google can ‘answer’ almost any question in less than a second. The majority of electricity in Vermont now comes from renewable energy. We’re also no longer increasing our electric use each year – now we meet 16 percent of our electricity needs with energy efficiency. Said another way, without Efficiency Vermont’s work over the past 20 years, Vermonters would be buying 16% more electricity than we do now.

Looking to the future, these changes mean when we save electricity now matters almost as much as whether we save it, so we can avoid running the most expensive and polluting electric generation at times when electric demand is highest. These changes in the electric sector also mean that Vermont should start to shift its focus to the transportation and heating sectors. Transportation and heating are now the biggest energy costs for Vermonters, the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and disproportionally affect low-income Vermonters.

The first step to modernizing energy efficiency is focusing our goals on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not just electricity use. And because heating and transportation are Vermonters’ biggest energy costs and the biggest polluters, energy affordability and greenhouse gas emissions go hand in hand. Modern energy efficiency services can help make it more affordable for Vermonters to heat our homes and businesses, and get to work, school, and medical appointments. The electric grid can now be part of the solution. We can use cleaner electricity to power cold climate heat pumps or electric vehicles. Those efficient solutions typically have lower operating costs than their fossil fuel counterparts, making them more affordable for Vermonters. And they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well.

The second step is to encourage all energy service providers to work collaboratively to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions for Vermonters. This kind of collaboration is already underway. Look at cold climate heat pumps. Starting more than five years ago, Efficiency Vermont worked with manufacturers to develop and test products that would work in Vermont’s cold winters. We then worked regionally to define the performance we needed to see to offer incentives. Using our supply chain relationships, we ensured manufacturers could meet that level of performance, that distributors could keep the heat pumps stocked, and that contractors could properly install them. Today, we are partnering with Vermont's utilities to offer rebates for this efficient heating solution. These successful partnerships have resulted in Vermont leading the nation in adoption rates for cold climate heat pumps – more than 10,000 Vermont families are using this technology today, and that number is growing daily.

Continued collaboration among energy providers can unlock even more benefits: making electric vehicles more affordable and available; increasing weatherization efforts; enabling Vermonters to control over when we use electricity to benefit the grid and reduce system costs; reducing greenhouse gas emissions from refrigerant leakage, and more.

When it passed Act 62 last year, the Legislature provided an opportunity for Efficiency Vermont to present its vision to regulators for how to modernize efficiency services. Based on the Legislature's direction, the Public Utility Commission has asked energy stakeholders what the future of energy programs should be and how we can work together to deliver more for Vermonters. The preliminary report from the Public Utility Commission's work will be presented to the Legislature in January, in time for what will likely be a robust legislative discussion on the same topics.

A lot has changed in the past 20 years. Saving energy looks different today than it did when Efficiency Vermont was created. Working with partners across the state, we've helped Vermonters save $2.4 billion on their energy costs and 17.7 million megawatt-hours since 1999. But, the challenges we face today require modern solutions. Efficiency Vermont has the skills and the knowledge needed to tackle those challenges: our existing programs serve Vermonters in every county and at every income level, and we are constantly working to expand access to energy efficiency. For example, in 2019, we will help Vermonters complete 60 percent more weatherization projects than they did last year. And, 40 percent of those projects will be undertaken by moderate-income households, a group that has traditionally struggled to participate in energy-saving programs. There's still much work to be done in helping Vermonters lower their energy costs and their greenhouse gas emissions, but we're off to a good start and stand ready to do even more in the future.

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