Sweet Success in Vermont

Efficiency Vermont not only focuses on building relationships with the state's households and businesses, but also with the tradespeople, professionals, and suppliers who provide the state with energy-efficient goods and services.

November 01, 2005
November/December 2005
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2005 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Builders and contractors committed to high-performance homes face a range of challenges,” says Patrick Haller, residential new construction manager for Efficiency Vermont. “I talk to skilled, effective people doing tremendous work outside Vermont who always want to achieve more. So when they hear what’s going on in Vermont, I get a lot of How do you do it?”

What’s going on in Vermont is Efficiency Vermont, the nation’s first statewide energy efficiency utility. Look at some of their successes last year in bringing energy efficiency to new and existing homes:

  • Vermont’s national ranking in market share sales of Energy Star-qualified products to new and existing homes includes number one for clothes washers, number two for room air conditioners, number three for refrigerators, and number eight for dishwashers.
  • Builders working with Efficiency Vermont installed an average of ten energy-efficient light fixtures per new home.
  • Vermont ranks fifth nationally in the percentage of new homes that are Energy Star rated. (Alaska ranks first, followed by Nevada, Texas, Iowa, and Vermont. Following Vermont are, in sixth place, New Jersey, followed by Hawaii, Arizona, Louisiana, and Rhode Island. Bragging rights accorded all around.)
  • Of the approximately 18% of all new homes in the state that were completed with Efficiency Vermont, 87% had Energy Star-qualified refrigerators, 93% had Energy Star-qualified dishwashers, and 89% had Energy Star-qualified central heating systems.

So how do they do it? The answer, according to Haller, is to build good working relationships. Since its inception in 2000, Efficiency Vermont has focused its efforts on building relationships not only with the state’s households and businesses, but also with the tradespeople, professionals, and suppliers who provide the state with energy-efficient goods and services. Efficiency Vermont also works in close partnership with Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) in new-home projects in the high population-growth VGS service territory. It’s all part of Efficiency Vermont’s goal to make it easy for Vermonters to choose energy efficiency when they buy equipment and lighting, build, or renovate.

“We’re only part of the picture,” says Haller. “It’s the contractors, designers, retailers, developers, building managers, and manufacturers who make energy efficiency happen. That’s why we place a lot of emphasis on knowing what they need to succeed and doing whatever we can to support their efforts. And they in turn appreciate that we’re an unbiased third party.”

That support takes many forms, including technical advice, training, and financial assistance. As important, according to Haller, are the partnerships that Efficiency Vermont maintains with associations and agencies that act as advocates for the state’s industries, tradespeople, and design professionals. The scope of their outreach is considerable, and this outreach, says Haller, is “very effective in strengthening the knowledge and skills of the people who Vermonters already turn to for goods and services. With guidance from this knowledgeable network, Vermonters are increasingly motivated to choose energy efficiency as a matter of course.”

In 2004 alone, Efficiency Vermont helped 40,000 households and businesses reduce yearly electricity use by more than 50 million kWh. Because of the energy saved since Efficiency Vermont’s inception in 2000, over 2 million tons of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases will be kept out of the environment over the 14-year lifetime of the measures installed, because of the reduced need for electricity generation. That level of emissions reduction is equal to avoiding burning 900 barrels of oil per day. The efficiency utility’s work has garnered awards from such heavyweights as EPA, DOE, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and others. It has also inspired the creation of programs modeled after it to varying degrees in numerous states and provinces.

How does all this activity play out on a daily basis? Here’s a look at Efficiency Vermont’s efforts to increase the adoption of energy-efficient approaches in Vermont’s homes.

Supporting Builders and Contractors

Efficiency Vermont works with numerous trade associations, schools, and agencies to present training sessions and technical materials on a range of energy efficiency topics useful to home contractors and builders. The flagship of Efficiency Vermont’s training offerings is the annual Better Buildings by Design Conference, held in February of each year. This two-day event brings together building performance experts from around the country to present information on cutting-edge residential and commercial new construction and retrofit applications.

About 950 builders, contractors, and design professionals attend this conference, which features hands-on workshops, speakers, demonstrations, a trade show of about 45 providers of energy-efficient goods and services, and a design competition showcasing the best high-performance buildings in the state. Qualifying architects, engineers, and contractors are able to receive continuing education credits for attendance at certain conference sessions. The event is New England’s largest energy efficiency conference for builders and design professionals, and the only conference in the country to focus exclusively on energy efficiency in residential and commercial new construction.

Efficiency Vermont’s efforts to improve homes are not limited to new construction. Throughout the year, Efficiency Vermont sponsors and coordinates training sessions for contractors seeking Building Performance Institute certification as Home Performance with Energy Star specialists; Home Performance with Energy Star is a federal program aimed at improving the efficiency of existing homes. With this training, contractors are equipped to solve a comprehensive range of comfort, energy efficiency, and indoor air quality (IAQ) problems. The training also provides marketing and sales tips, and on-the-job mentoring. To encourage participation, Efficiency Vermont offers contractors financial incentives for the training, and it offers a range of incentives after training to both contractors and their customers.

In an effort to build customer demand for Home Performance with Energy Star contractor services while fostering contractor capacity, Efficiency Vermont offers whole-house assessments, for a nominal fee, to homes using these contractors. This fee is refunded upon the installation of recommended measures. The assessments include blower door testing, combustion safety and efficiency checks, evaluation of insulation, and analysis of cost-effective opportunities to upgrade inefficient systems and appliances. In addition, CFLs are installed at no charge to the homeowner.

Increasing Efficiency in New Homes

As most builders know, buyers rely heavily on them for advice. That’s why, according to Haller, Efficiency Vermont puts great emphasis on supporting builders. Toward this end, Efficiency Vermont provides builders, buyers, and developers with a range of services, including technical assistance, performance testing, state energy code assistance, training, and financial incentives for recommended approaches and equipment. The efficiency utility also conducts outreach and training to building supply stores and equipment suppliers.

Efficiency Vermont provides builders with preliminary plan review and energy ratings to see if there are design issues that could compromise energy performance, and remains on call throughout projects to answer questions and help solve problems as they arise. At completion, Efficiency Vermont certifies that homes meet Energy Star standards by providing a final inspection that includes verifying insulation levels, airtightness, ventilation system effectiveness, and integrity of forced-air distribution systems. A final Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score is calculated, which also provides builders with third-party verification of compliance with Vermont’s residential energy code. Homes with a 5-star HERS score and at least four energy-efficient light fixtures qualify for incentives.

“It’s a classic win-win,” says Haller. “Builders have an edge in the marketplace and buyers have better homes. We’re really pleased that so many Vermont builders are committed to the Energy Star standard, and we’re delighted to do whatever we can to benefit their businesses.”

Going to the Marketplace

“When energy-efficient lighting and appliances are easy to find in stores with knowledgeable salespeople, those products are more likely to wind up in Vermont homes,” says Jim Grevatt, director of residential energy services for Efficiency Vermont.

That’s the basic philosophy behind Efficiency Vermont’s work with retailers throughout the state, according to Grevatt. Efficiency Vermont representatives regularly visit appliance and lighting retailers to keep stores up to date on technologies, to provide help with advertising and in-store displays, and to create store events that increase awareness about the benefits of efficiency and sales of Energy Star-qualified products.

Last year, Efficiency Vermont teamed with three Vermont hardware stores to launch the nation’s first Energy Star centers. These centers raise awareness of, and access to, a wide range of energy-efficient products by designating spaces within existing stores for the display of each shop’s full range of Energy Star-qualified items. Not only did the centers draw crowds on opening days, but they continue to move more Energy Star products.

“By demonstrating to our customers the new technology and quality of Energy Star products, people who would never have considered Energy Star before are now buying it,” says Chris Hamblett of Pick & Shovel hardware store in Newport, Vermont.

News of the centers’ success spread to hardware store owners around the state, who are now interested in establishing centers in their own stores.

Helping Low-Income Vermonters

To serve the particular needs of low-income households, Efficiency Vermont teams up with Vermont’s weatherization and affordable housing agencies to bring a range of efficient products directly to qualifying homes. These partnerships enable participating households to obtain services at no cost. Services include installation of efficient lighting and water conservation products, replacement of inefficient refrigerators and freezers with Energy Star-qualified models, and conversion of electric water and space-heating equipment to fossil fuel-fired systems that are less costly to operate. Efficiency Vermont reimburses weatherization agencies for a portion of their costs and provides incentives for installing energy-efficient lighting, switching fuels, and replacing appliances.

Bringing efficiency to low-income Vermonters in multifamily housing entails an even broader network of partnerships. Efficiency Vermont provides technical assistance, education, and financial support in cooperation with building owners, property managers, housing associations, public housing authorities, housing developers (both private and semiprivate), financial institutions, and low-income advisory and advocacy organizations. Because of these efforts, Efficiency Vermont participates in more than 90% of the state’s multifamily unit new-construction projects undertaken with funding from the public sector.

Working in Communities

Efficiency Vermont works with communities to produce educational events that give Vermonters opportunities to have personal, hands-on experience with energy efficiency. Coordinating closely with local officials, schools, businesses, and organizations, Efficiency Vermont creates events designed not only to benefit communities but also to increase long-term community involvement in energy efficiency.

“These events are fun and colorful and highly effective,” says Jim Grevatt. “They make energy efficiency real to homeowners and renters who might not otherwise give it a try. These experiences make believers of people who make decisions and purchases that affect their energy use every day.”

Recent events include a highly publicized Change-a-Light Challenge that prompted nearly an entire town to change one light bulb per home. Scheduled to tie in with a popular chili-cooking contest on the town green, the event found locals standing in line to ride a stationary bike that generates electricity to illuminate lightbulbs. By pedaling the bike, people found out how much more energy it took to light traditional bulbs than to light energy-efficient CFLs. People also learned from the event about the connections between efficiency and the environment, and saw how simple it was to make a difference. An inspiring 96% of village households took home one free CFL each, and the local hardware store sold additional CFLs with Efficiency Vermont discount coupons. Increased CFL sales continued beyond the event.

“So it all comes down to partnerships,” says Patrick Haller. “Without committed builders, contractors, and retailers interacting with home owners and renters every day, we would be looking at a very different picture. Luckily for us, we get to apply our particular expertise to work with a great network of partnerships all over the state. It really is a recipe for success.”

Amy Rubin is public relations manager/copywriter for Efficiency Vermont.

For more information:

Call Efficiency Vermont toll-free at (888)921-5990, or visit www.efficiencyvermont.com.

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