In 2000, Vermont instituted an aggressive program to reduce statewide energy consumption. In the eight years since, it has proven to be one of the country's most innovative and successful conservation initiatives. But that progress has not been easy, or cheap, and there is still a long way to go.
An Innovative Program
Vermont now spends more than any other state — $46 per person each year — to eliminate energy waste.
"Efficiency is actually the cheapest resource we have to meet our electric service needs," says Blair Hamilton, director of Efficiency Vermont.
Efficiency Vermont is a nonprofit consulting group established by the Vermont Legislature in 2000. Funded by a fee tacked on to Vermont electricity bills, the group works with every category of electricity user in the state — residential, commercial and industrial. Through a combination of financial assistance and expertise, the group helps its clients drive down the quantity of electricity they use, striving to improve the state's environment and economy.
One of Efficiency Vermont's clients, Hazelett Strip-Casting Corp., has a small factory that produces machines used by sheet-metal manufacturers. Hazelett uses a lot of energy to run its factory, but not as much as it once did. Efficiency Vermont engineers have been in and out of Hazelett's factory, finding ways to help the company reduce its electricity use.
"When we went through this whole audit," says the factory's facilities manager Alan Landry, "we really learned at that time we weren't running these [machines] as efficiently as possible."
With Efficiency Vermont's help, the company replaced some of its biggest and oldest machines with much more efficient models.
The efficiency experts also went after 97 old energy-hogging light fixtures in the factory. With consultation from Efficiency Vermont, the factory is now brightly lit with super-efficient fluorescent bulbs. Landry says the lights save energy and make it easier for people to see their work.
"There's been a lot of positive feedback," Landry says.
The manager is not complaining about money, either. The company's electric bill is expected to drop $42,000 a year. Since Efficiency Vermont kicked in $22,000 to make the project fly, the company's contribution will pay for itself in saved energy bills in just 8 months, Landry says.
Hamilton says Efficiency Vermont's contribution to companies like Hazelett is money well spent. The local utility will not have to purchase as much expensive electricity now, and that holds down the inevitable rate increases for everyone in the state. So everyone wins.
The amount of electricity saved is not quite so impressive, however. Efficiency Vermont figures that the company's electricity consumption is down by just 15 percent, and that took a lot of work. So the lesson here also is that it often takes a lot of work for a modest gain.
Working With Small Business, Residents
Retail business is another major user of electricity. At a large mom-and-pop grocery store, Hamilton points proudly to a display promoting compact fluorescent light bulbs for 99 cents, which are heavily subsidized by Efficiency Vermont.
Dick Mazza, owner of the store, proudly shows all the other energy-saving features installed with the help of Efficiency Vermont. First is the fluorescent lighting illuminating the store. Next he shows off the cooler, which in wintertime draws cold air from outside, saving big on refrigeration costs.
Mazza is not sure how much electricity he has saved in the process. But he does know that, while his neighbors' electric bills have all been going up, his have at least stayed pretty much the same.
Efficiency Vermont uses these same principles to help the state's residents save energy. The organization provides rebates for Vermonters who buy home appliances with the federal Energy Star rating. Efficiency Vermont representatives also meet with the retailers and salespeople, to entice them to sell the most efficient appliances.
"Having the salespeople, when someone is looking at different machines, say, 'This is the good one here,' helps a lot," Hamilton says.
Two-thirds of all refrigerators, washing machines and room air conditioners sold in the state now are Energy Star models, says Hamilton. He says that is at or near the best rate in the nation.
Nevertheless, Energy Use Grows
Eight years in, the statewide effort has made progress. But the state's energy demand also has been increasing year after year. Since the state's population has not grown drastically, it seems that the growth in electricity demand comes from individual households using more products that draw more electricity. So now, despite eight years with this ambitious program, Vermont is consuming more electricity than it was in 2000.
Efficiency Vermont hopes to improve on its success in the coming years. But the lesson here is a sobering one for states throughout the country. Many have much more ambitious energy-conservation goals, but no tool quite as sophisticated as the Efficiency Vermont program to meet them.