Lawmakers disappointed with narrow reach of energy conservation program

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(Host) Lawmakers are complaining that the Douglas Administration is watering down an energy conservation program.

The program was supposed to help all Vermonters save money on their heating bills. Legislators are upset because they say that, instead, the state is only targeting low-income households.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Last spring, the Legislature voted to create an "all fuels" efficiency utility. It was called "all fuels" because it was supposed to save people money on their heating fuel bills in the same way Efficiency Vermont helps cut electricity bills.

But lawmakers were disappointed when they got a status report last week. Morrisville Democrat Shap Smith told an administration official that the state is ignoring the intent of the law.

(Smith) "The statute is meant to build on what we were doing on the weatherization program and expand the population that we were going to help. And it seems like what you’re doing is actually narrowing that, and that’s inconsistent with the statute."

(Dillon) Senate President Peter Shumlin agreed.
He said the state already helps low income Vermonters tighten up their homes to save fuel.

(Shumlin) "We have that program. It’s working and what you hear time and time again when you talk to Vermonters right now is it is the middle class who is struggling. And I think that we saw that when we wrote this legislation. We saw that train coming. They are struggling to make ends meet."

(Dillon) But Steve Wark, who directs the state’s energy efficiency office, told Shumlin that there wasn’t enough money to launch the more extensive program.

(Wark) "We believe that there is some latitude that if a proposal comes in, a bidder could conceivably come in and say they would augment weatherization services and go beyond in other places. But we don’t think that it is inconsistent. We believe that we have done the best job given the circumstances with limited funds to come in and try to solve a problem and also leave the door open should more funds become available."

(Dillon) Wark said the program will serve people whose income puts them above the current eligibility guidelines. In an interview, Shumlin said he would continue to press the administration on the issue.

(Shumlin) "I remain perplexed and disturbed that the department is refusing to follow the law that the legislature passed and the governor signed. And this is really important because at a time when middle class Vermonters could not be feeling more economic pain and they’re having trouble heating their homes why on Earth would you not finally do something for the middle class in this state?"

(Dillon) The state will pay for the program with about $3.6 million raised through the sale of carbon pollution allowances through the regional greenhouse gas initiative.

The Legislature wanted to go even farther. Two years ago lawmakers passed a bill that would have raised $30 million with a tax on power produced by the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. The governor vetoed it.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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