Officials are pushing Vermonters to weatherproof, using state and federal incentives

Paul Zabriski
Paul Zabriskie, director of the weatherization program at Capstone Community Action, and Smitty, an energy auditor, search for drafts in the basement of a 19th-century Barre house in 2015. State officials hope that weatherization programs will help Vermonters pay high upfront costs. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Heating prices are expected to rise this winter, and to help cut costs, authorities are encouraging Vermont residents to make their homes more energy efficient.

The initial cost of weatherization – the process of insulating and sealing buildings, which can reduce heating costs, improve health and reduce carbon emissions – is high.

The price can be a barrier for people who would otherwise participate, especially lower-income Vermonters, who are also more likely than others to go without heating. Meanwhile, Rebecca Foster, CEO of Vermont Energy Investment Corp. — the nonprofit that operates Efficiency Vermont, the state’s energy efficiency utility — estimates that weathering saves $2 for every dollar invested.

Recently, state lawmakers have funneled an influx of federal money into state programs that help Vermonters with the costs of weathering. In turn, programs like Efficiency Vermont are ramping up public campaigns to ensure Vermonters know they are eligible for aid.

Statewide programs, listed in a new section of the state website called “vermont buttoned upshow weatherization options for Vermont residents. The Home Bloat Assistance Program, for example, offers free bloat services to people whose incomes qualify, and a separate income-based reimbursement program can reduce up to 75% of the cost, up to at $5,000.

The state legislature approved $80 million this year for weatherization projects. Of this amount, $45 million will be channeled through weatherization agencies, which include community action organizationsand $35 million through Efficiency Vermont, according to Peter Walke, general manager of Efficiency Vermont.

“We’ve always believed and found true that adage that the cleanest, cheapest form of energy is the energy you don’t use,” Foster said.

According to Vermont’s Climate Action Plan, released in December 2021, about 30,000 buildings have been weathered in Vermont, but about 90,000 more homes need to be weathered by 2030.

Heating and cooling contribute about 34 percent of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions, which must be significantly reduced by 2025, 2030, and 2050 to comply with the state’s global warming law.

While Efficiency Vermont has worked since 2000 to help Vermont residents cool their homes, Foster said the organization has faced two major hurdles in trying to expand the program: money and labor. ‘work.

“The budget for the bloat assistance program, run by the Office of Economic Opportunities and then the bloat agencies – those budgets have not been close to the level they would need to meet the needs that exist in the state to temper our housing stock,” she said. “And so I think a lot of it comes down to funding.”

The organization was able to significantly increase the number of weatherized homes during the pandemic, when there was an influx of federal funding and a focus on workforce development.

In 2019, Efficiency Vermont completed 796 weatherization projects through its core program, called Home Performance with Energy Star. In 2020, this number increased to 1,048 projects.

“It told us the demand is there, the need is there,” Foster said. “Funding and manpower are really the two things we need.”

Welch brings hope to homes

More money is coming soon thanks to a federal program called Hope for Homes, which U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has crafted with input from Vermont organizations for more than a decade. The program was incorporated into the Inflation Reduction Act, which came into force in August.

Foster said Vermont Energy Investment Corp., which runs programs nationwide in addition to Efficiency Vermont, coordinated with Welch to help design Hope for Homes.

“What we saw was that Vermont’s energy efficiency program was working very well,” Welch said. “It was very popular with Vermonters who told me about it. I saw energy efficiency as an opportunity to try to get bipartisan support to do something that would be a big driver of reducing carbon emissions.

Hope for Homes is allocating $9 billion to three different programs related to weatherization and electrification of homes. The first is a $4.3 billion weather rebate program that reimburses homeowners for energy-efficient upgrades. Discounts are doubled for people with low and middle incomes. To be eligible, projects must reduce energy consumption by 20% modeled or measured by 15%.

The second part of the program allocates $200 million for a training program designed to strengthen the weatherization workforce.

The third arm of Hope for Homes will provide a total of $4.5 billion in point-of-sale rebates on electrical appliances – such as heat pumps, electric ranges or cooktops and electric water heaters – people with low or moderate income.

The U.S. Department of Energy always makes final decisions on how Hope for Homes will be implemented and how much money each state will get. While homeowners cannot combine financial incentives from the weatherization and electrification components of the program, they can stack them on top of statewide incentives.

And the tenants?

While the federal money for weatherization is widely seen as good news, some are looking to overcome another hurdle: For those who rent, weatherization services are still difficult to access. Many low-income Vermonters rent.

“Tenants don’t ultimately own their homes,” said Tom Proctor, housing justice campaign director for Rights & Democracy, an advocacy organization based in Vermont and New Hampshire. “And so, maybe you can put a picture in your living room, or maybe you can put a fresh coat of paint in your bedroom. You can’t go and replace the windows. You cannot put insulation in the attic. It’s up to your landlord to do that.

About 25% of Vermont’s housing was built before the 1930s, Proctor said, and that percentage is increasing among rental housing. Due to the tight housing market, landlords may feel less pressure to make renovations and may pass the cost of weatherization onto tenants.

Proctor hopes to help craft a policy that lawmakers could consider next year that would incentivize and regulate bloat in rental housing.

Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said state programs still offer financial assistance to renters looking for weather protection if their income qualifies. Additionally, through Hope for Homes, tenants will be able to get discounts through building owners, Foster said.

More information on statewide programs is available at vermont.gov/buttonupvt.

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