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Vermonters slow to take up tools for saving energy

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Posted on August 29, 2011 |
By Ian Trombulak



LauraAsermily1172.jpg
MIDDLEBURY RESIDENT LAURA Asermily stands beside the tank of her solar-powered water heater. This is only one of the many improvements she’s made to make her home more energy efficient. Independent photo/Andrea Warren

MIDDLEBURY — Three years after the Legislature passed Act 92, the Vermont Energy Efficiency and Affordability Act, the state is not on pace to reach the act’s goal of improving energy efficiency in 25 percent of Vermont homes (roughly 80,000) by 2020.

Instead, the state is likely to fall short of this goal by 28,000 homes.

To Middlebury resident Laura Asermily, who has recently taken steps to improve the energy efficiency in her home, those numbers are disappointing, but not surprising given the high upfront cost of weatherizing a home. Improving a home’s energy efficiency by 25 percent costs an average of $7,500, she said.

“A lot of (people) don’t have that kind of upfront money,” Asermily said. “When you have kids that are going through college and … other maintenance expenses to keep up with, I think that’s the barrier. It’s just hard for people to get around to weatherizing with the economy the way it is.”

Asermily, like many who decide to weatherize their homes, has burned considerably less fuel oil since the upgrades, and expects a return on her investment in less than 10 years. Steve Maier said his family decided to weatherize their Middlebury home in 2006, and he believes they have already made back what they put in. The Bremser-Maier family is now using roughly 400 fewer gallons of fuel oil per year to heat their home.

At $3.79 per gallon (the price quoted Wednesday by a local fuel oil supplier), that works out to $1,516 in savings a year, minus the cost of weatherization.

But Maier, like Asermily, believes that the cost of upgrading is prohibitive to many Vermonters.

“I think the problems that people have is only related to coming up with the upfront cash,” said Maier.

MANY OBSTACLES

But a recent report commissioned by the Middlebury-based nonprofit environmental group High Meadows Fund revealed that the obstacles to weatherization may be more complex than a simple lack of funds.

The study, carried out by the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, found that the key issue is an overall lack of demand for energy efficiency upgrades. The report cites “debt aversion, split incentives, disbelief or discounting of savings to be realized, (and) paybacks longer than the homeowner’s investment horizon” as factors contributing to Vermonters’ hesitancy to upgrade.

The report does not completely discount the effect of investment costs, however. It also recognizes that aspects of the financing process are preventing many families from taking the step to weatherizing, for both lenders and borrowers. First, it identifies the financing process as “cumbersome” — households must first pay for an energy audit before a contractor carries out any actual improvements.

Additionally, according to the report, “many Vermonters are not creditworthy under traditional lending standards,” compounding the problem that “the scale of demand is insufficient to develop strong lender interest.”

The report recommends that the state of Vermont develop a strong marketing campaign to increase demand and spread knowledge about the extent to which one can save — and increase the comfort of one’s home — by weatherizing. The positive feedback from weatherized households suggests that such a campaign would have no shortage of spokespersons.

“It definitely helps the integrity of the building itself,” said Asermily, “and it’s definitely going to be saving you money and energy down the road.”

Maier agrees. After five years, he believes “we are now ahead of the game, and the house is also more comfortable.”

The process of weatherizing a household, the report contends, must be simplified. Vermonters currently view the process as too complex to “warrant the ‘hassle’ of engagement.” Thus, part of their recommendation for increasing demand for energy efficiency improvements is to make the process seamless, rather than convoluted.

The report also recommends changes to the financing process, while acknowledging that not all Vermonters have the same financial means.

For creditworthy Vermonters, the report recommends mainly cosmetic improvements to the process, such as introducing “a loan application that is easy to complete with minimal information requirements and a short turn-around to approval” and “a closing process that is quick and convenient with easily understood documents.”

For households that do not qualify for traditional lending, the report recommends a financing program that “will have to include credit enhancements and may best be facilitated through a centralized lending program.”

NEED FOR SUBSIDIES

For low-income Vermonters, the report recognizes the need for subsidies in order to finance home improvement projects. In this respect, it found no easy solution, concluding that “because of limited funds and manpower, the state needs to determine the best strategy to meet the needs of these sectors while working to achieve its Act 92 goals.”

The report offers more in-depth plans for how to achieve the many goals it puts forth. Along with improving the financing process, the report is adamant that more effort be put into showing Vermonters the long-term benefits — to their wallets, to their homes and to the Earth — of weatherizing their households.

In other words, they would like to get all Vermonters to identify with Asermily, who firmly believes that “weatherization is the best return on investment and the least environmentally degrading option we have. The more we can do to accelerate it, the better off we are all going to be.”

The full report can be found at www.highmeadowsfund.org/learningresources.

Reporter Ian Trombulak is at intern@addisonindependent.com.

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