Working together to tackle fuel poverty in Vermont

by Liz Gamache, Director of Efficiency Vermont

With the first day of spring behind us my thoughts have turned to warm days, turning off the heat, and opening the windows… As a Vermonter I should know better. With snow and cold temperatures forecasted in the coming weeks I know that the heating season is far from over.

Thankfully, most Vermonters have the means to keep their homes warm through the long heating season. However, many struggle to keep their families warm. In 2015 almost 13% of Vermont’s population was living below the federal poverty line, with the current federal poverty level set at an annual income of $24,300 for a family of four. These families face countless daily challenges, not the least of which is keeping the lights and the heat on.

A 2014 report on the energy costs and burdens in Vermont, (prepared by the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School for Vermont Low Income Trust for Electricity), estimated that 1 in 5 Vermonters lives in fuel poverty. This means that 125,000 of our neighbors spend more than 10% of their monthly income on energy. When energy represents that large a portion of a household budget, it reduces the amount of income that can be spent on food, housing, and other necessities. It is heartbreaking to think that there are families in Vermont that are just one cold snap away from losing their home or going without food.

I think we can all agree that energy should not be a driver of inequality in our state—and nobody should have to face high and uncontrollable energy costs. Energy efficiency is a proven way to solve this challenge, even when fuel prices rise. In Vermont we already have the know-how, technology, and an amazing network of community action agencies and non-profit organizations that are helping to alleviate this burden for our neighbors every single day. Strong partnerships across the energy efficiency and utility sector have been incredibly effective, and are having a big impact, but the need is great, and we still have a long way to go to eliminate fuel poverty in our state.

Working together for a greater impact

Vermont’s weatherization agencies are recognized as nation-leading programs that are deeply engaged with the families they serve, and they have developed best practices that are being emulated in many other states. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently published a report titled “Building Better Energy Efficiency Programs for Low-Income Households”. Efficiency Vermont is featured prominently in the report as an example of a successful implementer of energy efficiency services for low-income families. Specifically, our work partnering with community action and weatherization agencies is highlighted as an effective strategy for reaching these households.

We all work together to provide comprehensive services to help our neighbors. In Vermont, we are incredibly lucky to have access to an array of highly effective and experienced organizations, making a positive difference day in and day out: the Vermont Foodbank; affordable housing funders; multifamily affordable housing organizations; NeighborWorks® HomeOwnership Centers; and Vermont’s five weatherization agencies (Community Action in Southwestern Vermont, Capstone Community Action, Champlain Valley Weatherization, Northeast Employment and Training Organization, and Southeastern Vermont Community Action). Efficiency Vermont provides funding and technical assistance to these organizations to incorporate electric energy efficiency measures into their existing services. By joining forces we are able to build upon their on-the-ground experience to strengthen and expand our mutual impact. These longstanding relationships allow us to offer our services to an existing network of low-income customers while the agencies address a wider set of their clients’ needs.

In 2015 Efficiency Vermont served over 1,600 low-income households throughout Vermont. These services ranged from installing efficient lighting in homes, to replacing inefficient appliances and water heaters, to incentivizing the construction of high performance multifamily housing projects. We also provided over 15,000 free energy-efficient bulbs to low-income Vermonters through the Vermont Foodbank. These efforts resulted in an estimated annual savings of more than 2,560,000 kWh and 6,801 MMBTUs—enough to power over 160 homes for an entire year.

In 2015 we also awarded a total of $150,000 in grant funding to seven non-profit organizations working with low-income Vermonters through our Community Energy Partnership program. We first launched the program in 2014, which resulted in significant energy savings for a large number of low-income households. The 2015 grant recipients are already using the funds to benefit low-income Vermonters in their communities. For instance, the Southwest Vermont Council on Aging is using their grant to provide free home energy visits and free energy efficient products to qualified individuals and families to reduce their energy bills. We expect that the work of the seven participating organizations will result in more than double the electricity savings realized with the 2014 funds.

A challenge to keep improving—and to reach out

While we’ve made a lot of good progress, there is much more that still needs to be done—and challenges lie in our path. There are many more Vermonters who still need assistance, and funding for these critical programs is not keeping pace. Every year our representatives in Montpelier must grapple with a tight state budget, and a range of desperately needed services and priorities. These difficult times call on us all to dig deep and deliver as much value to all Vermonters as we can. They also call on us to make smart investments in energy efficiency that benefit everyone. 

The weatherization agencies are doing an incredible job helping to build a strong foundation of energy independence for our fellow Vermonters. I feel privileged that my team at Efficiency Vermont is able to partner with them in supporting and advancing this essential work, and I look forward to deepening and strengthening these ties long into the future. If you agree with me on the critical importance of low-income weatherization to our state and communities, please take some time to learn more about the weatherization agency that serves your region, and reach out to see what you can do to help.

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