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Vermont communities save big with local solutions

by Rebecca Foster, Director, Efficiency Vermont

Efficiency Vermont Community Manager, Becca White in St. Johnsbury.

Over the last 20 years, Efficiency Vermont has built a statewide platform to deliver energy savings across Vermont. But we have also learned that our local communities—from Bennington to Newport—are where the rubber meets the road when it comes to energy savings. The more Efficiency Vermont can support the work of grass-roots community organizations, the better the results. This makes sense: Vermont is a state where we know our neighbors, and the local general store often doubles as an informal community meeting space.

That understanding is at the heart of one of our programs where we partner with communities to bring efficiency solutions directly to residents across the state.

Starting in 2016, Efficiency Vermont and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) collaborated to bring energy service providers and community groups together to expand access to efficiency services in fifteen communities across the state. Additional partners in this effort include the other efficiency and distribution utilities, the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), town energy committees coordinated by the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network (VECAN), and the Regional Planning Commissions. We’re just getting started on partnerships in four new community areas for 2020 and reflecting on some of the success stories from the last year.

Expanding access to efficiency

In 2019, we worked with Rutland, Bellows Falls, St. Johnsbury, and Swanton. In each community, residents, businesses, and non-profit organizations were eligible for free home energy visits, consultations with an efficiency expert, and enhanced incentives to bring down the cost of efficiency upgrades.

A dedicated community manager from Efficiency Vermont coordinated community events and workshops for residents and business owners about available options for them. Through the course of the year, we connected with thousands of individuals in each of the towns, resulting in hundreds of free home energy visits, over 20 free energy consultations for multi-family rental properties and over 70 free energy consultations for small- and medium-sized businesses.

By working closely with partners in each of the communities, we were able to identify the best ways efficiency could support the community. In some cases, we worked directly with the town on a municipal building efficiency project. In others, we offered consultations to key businesses and non-profit organizations who could benefit from an efficiency upgrade. In all communities we worked with homeowners and property owners to offer efficiency improvements for individual households.

I wanted to share two success stories of partnership supporting the community, first on helping a critical non-profit service provider and second on providing hands-on energy education to residents.

Success story 1: Northeast Kingdom Community Action Parent Child Center

Community Action’s mission is to empower and help people thrive on their individual journeys. In service of the community, they host a food shelf, a warming shelter, and two emergency apartments. The Parent Child Center serves families with children under six through play groups, housing and employment assistance, educational classes, home visits, pre-school, and more.  They work with their visitors and guests to connect them to resources on everything from housing to healthcare to education and employment.

Joy Ely, the new Director of the Parent Child Center at Community Action, is aptly named: she loves the work she does and speaks with joy about the impact the organization has on the families and individuals it welcomes from every corner of the Northeast Kingdom. But she’s constantly aware that every cent spent on operating the St. Johnsbury headquarters pulls funds away from the diverse and expanding array of programs their guests and visitors need. The building hadn’t been updated since it was built in the 1950s, and aging heating & refrigeration systems were leading to “astronomical” overhead costs.

Efficiency Vermont identified the lighting and refrigeration systems as the most cost-effective solutions for the organization. By switching to efficient refrigerators and LED lighting, Community Action would be able to reduce electricity costs and help the space feel more welcoming to its guests.

“It was like a Christmas gift for us,” shared Joy this winter. “People come into our space with a weight on their shoulders: coming in to a dimly lit space isn’t welcoming. Our customers and clients have already noticed the difference.”

Efficiency Vermont connected Community Action with contractors to support the Vermont’s growing clean energy workforce. Goodwin Electrical in St. Johnsbury installed the new lighting and Kittredge Food Services in Williston installed the refrigerators.

Success story 2: Hands on energy education in Bellows Falls

When Efficiency Vermont Community Engagement Manager Brad Long proposed bringing a Zero Energy Modular (ZEM) demonstration home to Bellows Falls, he saw it serving two purposes. First, those interested in a super-efficient modular home could get a sense for what it would be like to live in one. Second, visitors could see and interact with efficient technology and building design to understand how it could work in their own home.

Brad’s instincts were correct. Around 300 visitors came through the house; some were thinking about downsizing and looking for an efficient way to do it. And a lot of the visitors wanted to talk about their own homes. They’d heard about heat pumps and solar panels but wanted to see how they worked in action. They wanted to experience what a super-insulated home felt like and see the triple-paned windows.

It was often a question that drew people in to learn more about the house.

  • “How does it run?” – Visitors were surprised to learn that the ZEM home is powered entirely by the solar panels in its roof. The house has no wires running to it and no propane tank outside.
  • “The heat pump is working… in the summer?” – Most visitors didn’t realize that the cool air they felt in the house was from the heat pump, which provides both heating in the winter and efficient air conditioning in the summer.

After the success in Bellows Falls, the ZEM demonstration home stopped in each of the other communities that Efficiency Vermont partnered with in 2019. At each stop, visitors were able to learn more about efficient building design and systems. This demonstration model retired (to be lived in!) at the end of 2019, but the tours will continue in a new model in 2020.

New partnerships in 2020

In 2020, this collaboration will move to four more communities, Irasburg/Barton/Orleans, Johnson, Brighton/Island Pond, and Barre City. Starting in the fall, Efficiency Vermont worked with key stakeholders, including VCRD, Vermont Electric Co-op, Green Mountain Power, the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority, ACCD, and VECAN to select these communities, using energy burden data, data from the Vermont Community Foundation, geographic location, and demographics to inform the decision.  

Efficiency Vermont will again have a dedicated community manager working with each community to set goals, coordinate outreach and educational activities, and work directly with the organizations and individuals interested in efficiency upgrades.

I’m excited to see how this next year of work with partners can once again expand our impact by bringing our services to our friends and neighbors across the state.

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