Editor’s note: This commentary is by Karen Glitman, the director of Efficiency Vermont.
Nearly two decades ago when growing electricity use was leading to increasing costs as well as environmental and financial risk, a group of Vermonters had a bold idea to tackle that era’s energy challenge. In contrast to building power plants, these leaders knew that electric efficiency — “energy not used” — could be quickly deployed at a fraction of the cost, and with little risk.
Born in this context, Efficiency Vermont became the nation’s first statewide energy efficiency utility, Vermont’s bold idea of providing efficiency as a public good. Created in the public interest, Efficiency Vermont operates under a performance-based contract with a requirement to serve all Vermonters outside of Burlington (which receives efficiency services through Burlington Electric Department). Energy solutions are provided to homeowners, small businesses, large industrial customers and more via education, services and incentives. By promoting efficiency as a clean, cost-effective and local fuel source, Efficiency Vermont is a leading market maker and a catalytic force.
The success of this bold idea in transforming markets and increasing economic growth has been significant: 90 percent of Vermonters have directly participated in efficiency programs, 8,500 Vermonters are now employed in energy efficiency jobs, and electric bills are 5 percent lower than they would have been without Efficiency Vermont. By working with manufacturers, vendors and retailers, Efficiency Vermont has given our state far greater market strength than our size would suggest, giving Vermonters access to leading-edge, affordable products and top-notch services before other states.
The structure that Efficiency Vermont’s founders created allowed it to bid efficiency into our regional electricity market (ISO-New England) as a reliable, cost-effective resource to meet our energy needs. At 15.5 percent, efficiency is now Vermont’s largest single energy value in this market. Since 2009 this has brought $28 million to Vermont.
Electric efficiency programs must remain central in this effort, as efficiency frees up capacity to electrify heating and transportation energy needs without requiring new power generation.
Ten years ago, Efficiency Vermont was assigned with a new task: helping Vermonters reduce heating, or thermal, costs. Through this new scope more than 18,000 Vermonters have received services through Efficiency Vermont partners funded by bids in the regional electricity market (mentioned above) and proceeds from RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), a regional cap and trade program.
Two decades after Efficiency Vermont was founded, Vermont is faced with new energy challenges. Energy to heat and power our homes and get us where we need to go costs us $2.67 billion a year. And while our electricity is increasingly produced by clean sources, our heating and transportation energy is still largely derived from fossil fuels — expensive and distant energy sources that take Vermonters’ hard-earned money out of state and leave behind unhealthy air.
Today, we must consider the full energy picture. This means exploring ways to replace dirty and inefficient fuel sources with clean and efficient ones, keeping our energy dollars closer to home while reducing the harmful impacts of fossil fuel use. Electric efficiency programs must remain central in this effort, as efficiency frees up capacity to electrify heating and transportation energy needs without requiring new power generation. While growing electricity use was a problem 20 years ago, continued efficiency plus new technologies mean that electrification can be part of the solution to today’s energy challenges.
Our homegrown energy efficiency utility can help all Vermonters have access to clean, affordable and efficient energy to meet their daily needs. As the energy system of the future emerges, Vermont’s bold idea, Efficiency Vermont, is evolving, too. The economic and climate imperatives require nothing less.