It’s November, and winter is here, and a great concern for those who have led recovery efforts since July’s catastrophic flooding is whether Vermonters whose living spaces and essential equipment were damaged are ready for the cold.
Very likely, some — perhaps many — are not, and that’s why Matthew Smith, public relations manager for Efficiency Vermont, is eager for people to know that financial assistance from his agency is still available.
Efficiency Vermont’s $10 million flood-recovery rebate program was launched on Sept. 5, and the agency has conducted webinars, hosted public meetings in several communities, and worked with utilities, town clerks, and city managers to inform people about it.
“We’ve had more than a thousand flood-related contacts through our customer-service phone number, emails, and things like that,” says Smith.
And there’s no concern about the funds running low. On the contrary, he says, “The alarm bell we’re worried about is the cold weather. We want people to take advantage of what we can provide to make sure they’re warm this winter.”
There are plenty of reasons why they might be in peril — why, four months after the deluge that swamped streets, homes, and buildings in Montpelier, Barre, and elsewhere, repairs have not been completed or even begun.
“We’re hearing about people having trouble affording the up-front costs, having trouble finding an available contractor. And when they overcome those obstacles, sometimes they can’t get the equipment they need.”
It must be acknowledged that the first of those problems — people’s inability to afford up-front costs — is not directly remedied by a rebate program, which is designed to reimburse people for a portion of the money already spent.
But there are workarounds that staff members at Efficiency Vermont can help provide. With prior approval, participants can sometimes have their contractors submit invoices directly to Efficiency Vermont, which alleviates the customer’s need to pay at least that portion of their bills. Another option is the agency’s zero-percent (0%) Flood Recovery Home Energy Loan, which is capped at $30,000. (Before the July floods, which were particularly devastating, the cap was $20,000.) Additionally, Efficiency Vermont is working with VSECU and the Vermont Community Foundation on plans to assist customers who need some amount of up-front capital.
What, and Who, is Covered
Efficiency Vermont’s rebate programs provide participants up to $10,000 to address repairs or replacements of heating systems and appliances that were damaged or destroyed by the July floods. (There’s a special provision to include Addison County, where the worst flooding occurred in August.)
Applicants can include homeowners and renters. In the latter case they must demonstrate that the equipment in question is their responsibility, not the landlord’s. There are also provisions for rebates to rental property owners and businesses.
Rebates are designed to assist low- and moderate-income applicants, a qualification that varies by location and household size. Details can be found on Efficiency Vermont’s website — but for a frame of reference: in Washington County a low-income household of one person qualifies at $55,050 annual income or less, and a five-member household qualifies up to $84,900. A one-person moderate-income household can earn up to $82,400, and a five-person household qualifies up to $127,400.
The equipment targeted in these rebate programs includes heating units, water-heating systems, large appliances such as refrigerators, freezers, and clothes washers and dryers, and small appliances such as air conditioners, air purifiers, and dehumidifiers.
A noteworthy provision in the flood-recovery rebate program is that the Vermont Public Utility Commission, which regulates Efficiency Vermont, has granted an exception to one of the organization’s founding principles. Efficiency Vermont was created in 2000 with the interrelated goals of reducing Vermont’s dependence on, and consumption of, fossil fuels and thus reducing carbon and methane emissions. Therefore, its programs have purposely moved people away from oil and propane boilers and water heaters, for example, and to clean energy systems such as wood-pellet stoves and cold-climate heat pumps, and to ENERGY STAR-certified electric water heaters.
Then came July 10, and the mayhem the floods wrought upon homes, businesses … in fact, the entire central Vermont infrastructure and the people striving to live safely and comfortably within it.
In response, the Commission adjusted its priorities, although solely for this instance of flood recovery.
“Recognizing that people lost systems that ran on fossil fuels,” says Smith, “they gave us permission to offer rebates to allow them to replace exactly what they had. So if they had a gas furnace, an oil furnace, a propane furnace, they can replace it with the same kind of system. Up to now, we haven’t [financed] anything that uses fossil fuels because decarbonization and reducing emissions are what we’re all about, as well as supporting efficiency.
“But in this instance you can replace like for like.”
Yet with that adjustment came a caveat: The new unit must be ENERGY STAR certified.
Participants in Efficiency Vermont’s flood-recovery rebate program have rarely approached the $10,000 maximum.
“We’re usually seeing about a $4,600 rebate for residential customers,” says Smith.
It’s a reflection, perhaps, that not only restoring their homes to livability but improving their value and lowering operating costs with better equipment could be within easier reach than people realize.
Progress — But Concern, Too — in Montpelier
At the level of city government, Montpelier, too, is working to make buildings and the entire municipality more flood resilient.
It’s pursuing those goals through its permit structure — including the River Hazard Area regulations, adopted in 2018, which predated the recent floods but became even more pertinent after them. The thrust of those regulations is to encourage the gradual movement of heating equipment and other appliances to safer elevations and environments. That can be tricky, because in days past no one designed buildings to contain heating systems, water heaters, and such devices close to or within people’s living quarters.
“There are 275 buildings in Montpelier’s river hazard area, many of which didn’t have damaged heating systems,” says Zoning Administrator Meredith Crandall. “If an owner or occupant notified us about the needs for repairs or replacements, or the issues were identified through inspections, we’ve been working with them, and in most cases they’ve obtained permits for their work.”
Crandall noted, “In the few instances where elevating utilities requires changes to the exterior of buildings, zoning permits . . . could also be required.” The best course, Crandall says, “is for owners or tenants to reach out to the Planning Department to confirm exactly which permits apply to their project. As a further complication, though, even projects that have permits may not be completed due to labor or equipment delays. And despite our extensive efforts at outreach, there may be property owners who haven’t approached us yet.”
Winter is here. But so are resources for people whose lives are still impaired by the flood damage of last summer.
What’s needed is to bring the resources and the people who need them together. For, as Efficiency Vermont’s Matthew Smith says, referring to that agency’s flood-recovery rebates, “We’re going to use those funds until every penny of that $10 million is spent.