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Efficiency VT and Suncommon: Energy Solutions for Vermonters

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by Joyce Kahn

Did you know that the energy efficiency charge on your electric bill every month helps to fund Efficiency Vermont, the first statewide energy efficiency utility in the United States? I discovered this when I shadowed Kate Stephenson, a local volunteer trained by Efficiency Vermont, on a visit to the home of a Montpelier resident interested in finding out how efficiently her home uses energy.

Efficiency Vermont was created as a result of a law passed by the legislature in 1999 to consolidate services previously provided by over twenty Vermont electric utilities, services designed to help us save energy, lower energy costs and protect the environment we treasure.

Recently, the local Montpelier Onion River Exchange (ORE) was one of six organizations to receive a share of a $100,000 Efficiency Vermont grant. According to Heather Kralik, ORE’s time bank outreach coordinator, ORE’s plan is to reach more homes of owners and renters alike by presenting six energy efficiency and weatherization workshops, making a minimum of 40 site visits and partnering with other organizations who can spread the word. Kralik told me that a site visit alone is projected to save a minimum of $200 in electric energy usage, well worth the price of becoming an ORE member. (See side bar for information about ORE, Montpelier’s local time-bank, where members exchange services instead of money.

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Stephenson is one of seven volunteers visiting homes of ORE members. All volunteers attend a day-long training in how to do a site visit for Efficiency Vermont, but most have professional experience in the energy and building field.

What can you expect from an energy visit?

A volunteer will do a walkthrough with you to assess where your home can be more energy efficient, performing installations as needed. He or she will install energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs, power strips, electric hot water pipe insulation, sink aerators and showerheads.

At the end of the visit, for which ORE members are debited 1.5 hours and volunteers are credited 1.5 hours, you may be wondering what now? Do-it-yourselfers can attend one of the ORE workshops designed to teach you how to apply weatherstripping, caulk windows, seal bulkheads, put plastic on windows and use the tools to do the job yourself. For larger jobs, you can consult the brochures and lists of resources the volunteer will leave with you. These include names of contractors who deal with Efficiency Vermont and can perform a comprehensive energy audit as well as the subsequent work.

In more detail, you will sit down with the home visitor who will fill out a worksheet that asks several questions: How much fuel do you use and from what source? These figures she converts into BTU’s and divides this by the number of square feet in your house. (You can find this worksheet on The Efficiency Vermont website). Anything less than 40,000 BTU’s per square foot is relatively efficient. Anything significantly higher would indicate a full energy audit might be advisable. Other questions you may be asked: Are there drafts, ice dams, mold or mildew issues? Have you made any energy efficiency improvements? Do you have a programmable thermostat? Every degree lowered on your thermostat will provide a 2–3 percent reduction in your energy bill. You will be asked to provide your electric company number, so that Green Mountain Power can track your power usage to see if your consumption is reduced after these improvements have been made.

During the walkthrough of your home, the volunteer will ask you how old your appliances are. If they are more than 10 years old, you can look on the Internet to see how efficient yours are, and if they need replacing, rebates are available through Efficiency Vermont. I learned about phantom loads—energy being used while an appliance is plugged in but not in use—so be sure to unplug chargers, your microwave and TV. You will learn that you can borrow a “Kill-A-Watt” meter which you can attach to your TV or fridge to see the energy they are actually using.

The volunteer will advise you to wash your clothes in cold water and check to see if you have caulking and weather-stripping around your doors and windows. I learned that windows are the lowest on the list of items to replace in terms of bang for your buck. The homeowner here had insulated shades, but Stephenson mentioned that they are now made with a track to seal them, and the homeowner could check to see if these could be added.

On a visit to the basement, you will be asked if you have spray foam in your box sill, a place of heat escape. You will receive pipe insulation as well, and I learned that it’s a good idea to insulate your cold water pipes as well so they don’t sweat in summer. You will also be asked how old your furnace is and if it’s cleaned regularly.

In a bathroom inspection, the volunteer will check to see the shower head flow, and can provide an energy efficient replacement to reduce flow to 1.5 gallons a minute, as well as faucet aerators, which cut down flow as well. Making the suggested changes to your home is just one step to shrinking your energy footprint, SunCommon, another Vermont company is a great resource for homeowners interested in going beyond efficiency.

SunCommon

Those wanting to have environmentally clean power and heating and the comfort of guilt-free air conditioning, while recognizing substantial savings, might want to consult SunCommon, a Waterbury Center company that has installed 700 solar systems in the past two years, one fourth of all the residential installations in the state.

Jessica Edgerly Walsh, organizing manager, spoke with me about the company, launched two years ago, whose mission according to the website “is to tear down the barriers that have made renewable energy inaccessible,” and to “make going solar easy and affordable,” thus saving money and electricity consumption while helping the environment. They are best known for installing solar with no upfront cost; instead, people pay a fixed monthly bill based on the portion they pay to Green Mountain Power.

In keeping with the goal of city officials to have Montpelier lead the nation as a “net zero” city, producing almost as much energy as we draw in electricity, heating and vehicle fuel consumption, Suncommon is launching phase two: solar home heating and cooling. Edgerly Walsh told me that solar energy can replace up to 80 percent of our heating needs at one third of the cost of oil. While we don’t have the sunshine of Miami, Edgerly Walsh thinks that 60–70 percent of people can go solar as long a there is no shade blocking the sun. If a homeowner has trees blocking the sun from the roof, solar panels can be installed on the ground.

Vermont state law requires our utilities to make net metering available to everyone. In this system, when you make more electricity than you use, the surplus goes into the grid, your electric meter runs backwards and you receive a credit to draw down when the sun isn’t shining. The electrical grid plays the role of a large storage battery, eliminating the need for cumbersome storage batteries in your home. Heating and cooling works with a heat pump, which takes cold air from outdoors and with a little electricity transfers that energy into the home in the form of warm air in the winter or cool air in the summer.

Edgerly Walsh anticipates that those switching to solar would see a 50 percent reduction in their heating costs, while their electric bill would stay the same. Paying for this involves a fixed monthly cost and could take 12 to 20 years to pay off, but the savings would flow from year one. Other financial benefits accrue from using solar: the panels protect the roof and lengthen its life and, while the property increases in value due to the panels, the city will not tax this home improvement. You needn’t worry about the aesthetics of the installation either. In addition to the rooftop panels, inside the home a small, non-obtrusive box sits high up on the wall, while another small box is situated outside.

Efficiency VT and SunCommon are two major players helping Vermonters move toward energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy in the home.

Onion River Exchange

46 Barre St. Montpelier 552-0082

Email: info@orexchange.org

Wed–Thurs  10 a.m to 3 p.m.

Contact: Heather Kralik or Chloe Budnick

April 21, 6:30 p.m., Weatherization Workshop—open to all

SunCommon

5430 Waterbury-Stowe Road Waterbury Center, VT 371-7556

Contact: Jessica Edgerly Walsh at Jessica@suncommon.com

Efficiency Vermont


128 Lakeside Avenue, Suite 401
 Burlington, VT 05401 888-921-5990

Website: efficiencyvermont.com