Vermont's Unique Approach To Curbing Energy Use In 2000, Vermont created the public consulting firm Efficiency Vermont to help residents and businesses reduce energy use by providing financial aid and expertise. Eight years in, progress is slow but steady.
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Vermont's Unique Approach To Curbing Energy Use

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Vermont's Unique Approach To Curbing Energy Use

Vermont's Unique Approach To Curbing Energy Use

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Some states have adopted ambitious goals to cut energy use as an easy and inexpensive way to address climate change. Many of those plans call for steep and quick reductions in electricity use over just a few years. But it won't be easy to reach those goals.

Vermont, for one, instituted an aggressive program eight years ago, and it's finding just how challenging it is to save large amounts of energy on a statewide scale. NPR's Richard Harris traveled to Vermont for the second part of our series on energy conservation.

RICHARD HARRIS: States are just coming to realize how much energy and how much money is simply wasted through inefficient use of electricity. But Vermont came to that realization a decade ago and now it spends more than any other state - $46 per person per year - to eliminate that waste.

Mr. BLAIR HAMILTON (Efficiency Vermont): Efficiency is actually the cheapest resource we have to meet our electric service needs.

HARRIS: Blair Hamilton works at Efficiency Vermont. It's an extraordinary nonprofit company. It gets money from everyone who uses electricity in the state and it uses that money to keep lights on and the fridges humming, all while using less electricity. Hamilton thinks of it as a utility that supplies relief instead of electrons.

Mr. HAMILTON: Our price happens to be a lot lower than those supply options.

HARRIS: Efficiency Vermont has been the company providing those savings for eight years now. Blair Hamilton takes us out on the road to show us how it works.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

HARRIS: The program involves every category of user - residential, commercial and industrial. The first stop is a small factory. Hazelett Strip-Casting produces enormous machines that are used by sheet-metal manufacturers.

Mr. ALAN LANDRY (Facilities Manager): What you're entering here is our main shop. It's our main production area.

HARRIS: Facilities manager Alan Landry shows us around the cavernous room. It takes a lot of energy to run this factory. For example, the tools are powered with compressed air. But Efficiency Vermont engineers have been in and out of here a lot to help Landry find ways to use less electricity.

Mr. LANDRY: And when we went through this whole audit on compressed air and how much we use here in the shop, we really learned at that time that, you know, we weren't running these as efficiently as possible.

HARRIS: With the help of some cash from Efficiency Vermont, the company replaced its biggest and oldest air compressors with much more efficient models.

Mr. LANDRY: Right up ahead here is our new Sol Air 40-horse compressor; the green unit right on top of the mezzanine.

HARRIS: Next, the efficiency experts went after the old-style light fixtures.

Mr. LANDRY: There was 97 of them hanging throughout this main shop, which are large, large energy hogs.

HARRIS: Now most of the shop is brightly lit with super-efficient fluorescent bulbs. Landry says they not only save energy, they actually make it easier for people to see their work.

Mr. LANDRY: When you're struggling to do things, when on an everyday basis, shadows and everything - compared to what we have now has been a lot of positive feedback. So...

HARRIS: What was your electric bill per month? Do you have any idea? Back before you started fiddling with this stuff?

Mr. LANDRY: Well, I can tell you this: when this whole thing is done we should decrease the electric bill about 3,500 a month. It's about a $42,000 a year savings.

HARRIS: The company recouped its investment in these changes in just eight months. Energy Vermont's kicked in $22,000 to make the project fly, in addition to all the staff time it's been helping to design and implement the plan. Blair Hamilton says that's money well spent because the local utility won't have to purchase as much pricy electricity now, and that holds down the inevitable rate increases for everyone in the state. So everyone wins.

Mr. LANDRY: Straight down through. We'll go down by the caster operation down there.

HARRIS: But it's no miracle. The full court press at this plant managed to reduce the electric use here by just 15 percent. So the lesson here is it often takes a lot of work to get a modest gain.

Mr. LANDRY: See you again. Have a good day, guys. See ya.

HARRIS: Leaving the factory, we head down the road to look at a store. Retail business is another major user of electricity.

Unidentified Woman: Dick, up front, please.

HARRIS: We step through the front door of a large mom-and-pop grocery store. Hamilton points proudly to a display that's promoting heavily subsidized compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Mr. HAMILTON: You got to love it, huh? Here we are. Here's our Earthmates and, you know...

HARRIS: Ninety-nine cents a bulb.


HARRIS: That's fantastic.

Mr. HAMILTON: And you've got compliments of Earthmate, Dick Mazza and Efficiency Vermont.

HARRIS: Dick Mazza would be the store's owner and a Vermont state senator. He comes out from the back room to greet us.

Mr. DICK MAZZA (State Senator, Vermont): Oh, we've been here a few years; 51.

HARRIS: Fifty-one years, is that right. Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: And the lights don't look like they're 51 years old.

Mr. MAZZA: No. This is all new and different.

HARRIS: Mazza called Efficiency Vermont to see what his store could do to conserve energy. In addition to the lights, they suggested putting in a clever system in the back coolers that draws in cold air in the winter to reduce the cost of refrigeration. Mazza also got rid of the old open refrigerator cases.

Mr. MAZZA: They said it couldn't be done, but I went with closed case on meat, with glass doors in front. They had over - about 30 feet of open cases for meat, for produce, for deli, and it's much more efficient and the product stays fresher longer.

HARRIS: How quickly did this pay back for you in terms of saved energy bills?

Mr. MAZZA: Well, that's a tough one to figure out. You know, rates increase all the time, so you know, we haven't kept an accurate - but I know one thing, we haven't gone higher over the past three or four years. In fact, our energy bill last year was about, dollar-wise, I think within $100 difference.

HARRIS: It takes a pretty sophisticated customer to realize that he's actually saving money, even though his electric bill didn't go down.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

HARRIS: Efficiency Vermont uses these same principles to help consumers save energy as well. Home appliances with federal Energy Star efficiency ratings cost more, but Blair Hamilton's outfit has found a successful strategy for getting people to buy them. They hand out generous rebates, and they also meet with the retailers and salespeople to entice them to sell the most efficient appliances.

Mr. HAMILTON: Having the salespeople, when someone is looking at different washing machines, say, this is the good one here, helps a lot.

HARRIS: The result has been impressive. Hamilton says two-thirds of all refrigerators, washing machines and room air conditioners sold in the state are Energy Star models. That's at or near the best rate in the nation. And eight years in, he says, you can see that the statewide effort has paid off.

Mr. HAMILTON: We look today at, say, that pie chart of how do Vermont's energy needs get met, and you've got one-third nuclear and one-third hydro. And the wedge for energy efficiency in terms of this year is about seven percent.

HARRIS: That's a real dent. Unfortunately, energy demand has also been increasing year after year. So now, eight years into this ambitious program, Vermont is actually consuming a bit more electricity than it was in the year 2000, so utilities need to buy as much electricity as ever.

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 nothing as sophisticated as the Efficiency Vermont program to meet them.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, closing the gap between what a state would like to do and what it can do realistically to save energy.

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