Uncertain future for VT energy conservation program

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(Host) State utility regulators will soon decide whether to trim a statewide energy conservation program.

A business group opposes the planned expansion of the Efficiency Utility. The group also says it will lobby against the program in the Legislature.

But supporters say that small investments in energy conservation now will lower everyone’s electricity bills in the future.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Most power companies sell you kilowatts. Efficiency Vermont does the opposite. It wants you to buy less electricity.

Company director Blair Hamilton was in the Northeast Kingdom recently at the Ethan Allen furniture plant. The factory in Orleans has a huge electricity bill so the plant’s owners decided to install energy conservation equipment.

Hamilton says it’s like investing in a new power plant, only the energy efficiency measures cost four to five times less.

(Hamilton) “We’re meeting Vermont’s power needs at a far lower cost than going out and buying this power.”

(Dillon) Ethan Allen says it will save a million dollars over ten years at the Orleans plant – savings that will help keep 500 jobs in the Northeast Kingdom.

Yet other businesses are critical of the efficiency program.

Efficiency Vermont has a contract with the state to help businesses, farmers and residential customers cut their energy use.

The work is funded through a small surcharge on electricity bills. When the program was launched three years ago, the budget was supposed to ramp up from 12 million dollars to 16 million dollars by 2003.

Governor-elect Jim Douglas wants to level-fund the program. The outgoing Dean Administration has proposed a compromise budget of 14 million dollars.

Douglas’ allies in the business community say they can’t afford to pay more in electricity bills. William Driscoll is vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont.

(Driscoll) “Businesses are still not fully recovered from the recession that has hit us, and at this point an increase even of about 2 million dollars – let alone 4 million dollars – is just another blow that frankly could push too many businesses over the edge right now.”

(Dillon) Driscoll says his group will also lobby the Legislature to cut the efficiency program.

But environmentalists say that’s a shortsighted strategy.

Curt McCormack is director of advocacy for the Vermont Public Interest Group. He says businesses should support the program.

(McCormack) “They will save a lot of money. Some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars, just for themselves and their own businesses. When businesses use less electricity we all save because the power that’s bought when we are peaking our demand is more expensive power. And the less electricity the whole state uses the more every single customer saves, including the smallest household. So this is an investment with an extraordinarily short payback.”

(Dillon) The Public Service Board has received hundreds of letters and emails from people who support the efficiency program.

A board official says the case has generated more public response than any other issue it’s considered.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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