Half Of Energy Fund Aimed At Low-Income Weatherization Programs

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Utility officials and efficiency experts have outlined a $21 million plan to help Vermonters use less energy to heat and light their homes.

The money comes from the merger last year of the state’s two largest utilities. About half the funds are targeted for low-income weatherization efforts.

Lawmakers want to do more to increase "thermal efficiency" – retrofitting buildings so they use less fuel for heating. But how to pay for it is the subject of fierce debate in the Statehouse.

The Legislature is considering competing tax proposals. Gov. Peter Shumlin wants to levy a tax on lottery-style "break-open" tickets sold at private bars and service clubs. Many environmental advocates and some lawmakers prefer a tax on heating fuel.

A $21 million windfall from last year’s merger between the state’s two largest utilities will jumpstart part of the thermal efficiency effort. Jim Massie of Efficiency Vermont, which runs energy retrofit programs statewide, outlined a plan Monday for the Public Service Board on how the $21 million will be spent. Massie said about half the funds are targeted for low-income people.

"We’re going to be investing greater than 50 percent of the money, (that’s) the anticipated investment in 2013," he told the PSB. "So of that $20.9 million we’re spending more than 50 percent of that and generating a significant amount of benefits in that first year."

Other efforts are aimed at condominium owners, farmers and businesses. The goal is to leverage the investment to achieve greater energy savings and financial benefits for society at large. Robert Dostis is a vice president at Green Mountain Power. He said the $21 million multiplies through the state economy.

"There’ll be at least $53 million worth of benefits back to customers," he said. "We all know – and that’s why we as a state have invested so heavily in Efficiency Vermont – is that when we invest in efficiency programs, the pay-off to customers is significant and it’s long-term."

But many lawmakers at looking at taxes to raise more money for thermal efficiency. Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, sees a counter argument in how the $21 million is being. Cota attended the briefing on the new efficiency programs. H said there’s clearly enough money now to get started. So he said the Legislature should back off from a proposed tax on heating fuel.

"We think that with this CVPS seed money and with the break-open tickets, there’s plenty of money for low income weatherization this year. And there’s no need to raise taxes on heating oil," he said.

The $21 million came from the merger last year of Central Vermont Public Service Corporation and Green Mountain Power.  

Some lawmakers and the Vermont office of AARP – advocating for older ratepayers – said consumers deserved a direct refund. That’s because the money represented higher rates that CVPS customers paid a decade ago to keep the company from bankruptcy. Jim Dumont represents AARP. He still argues that shareholders, not utility customers, should foot the bill for the efficiency programs.

"The purpose of the investment is fine. It’s good. It helps people," Dumont said. "But it should be coming from shareholders."

But the Public Service Board disagreed. It said the windfall money would be better spent to save energy in Vermont homes and businesses.

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