Senator hears from experts on Vermont efforts

VERMONT - Vermont is a national leader in conserving electricity but can do better at weatherizing buildings and finding more funds for alternate energy projects, energy-saving experts told U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at a recent hearing.

Sanders, I-Vt., represented the Senate Subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy in taking testimony on two types of green energy: energy saved through such programs as Efficiency Vermont and energy generated by wind, solar, biomass and other sources that do not burn fossil fuels.

"This is an energy revolution," Sanders told the group.

"It has huge potential in creating jobs, and in fact in many ways saving consumers money as we combat global warming. This state has played a leadership role in a number of areas, especially energy efficiency."

Efficiency Vermont, created by the Public Service Board in 2000, has won national recognition for its efforts to get the state's businesses and residents to use less electricity.

"We are now saving 10 percent of the electricity that we would be using today had we not put in those efficiency measures through the Efficiency Vermont program," said Blair Hamilton, policy director with the Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

VEIC administers the Efficiency Vermont program under contract with the state.

But while Efficiency Vermont has an annual budget of about $40 million, funded through a surcharge on electric bills, only about a 10th as much money goes to pay for weatherizing homes, according to participants in the hearing.

Another shortcoming in Vermont's green energy efforts is a lack of capital for larger renewable energy investments, particularly in the solar field, said Jim Merriam, chief operating officer with White River Junction-based groSolar.

Even with state and federal assistance and tax credits that can cover 80 percent or more of the cost of a project, many businesses are having trouble raising the last 20 percent in the current tough economic conditions, Merriam said.

"I have several projects that have a payback of one or two years, and we have federal and state backing that covers 80-plus percent of the project. And we can't get the customers to get the money pulled together to finance this for five or six months," Merriam said.

Joan Richmond-Hall, director of the Sustainable Design and Technology program at Vermont Technical College, said Vermont "policy seems to be a host of well intentioned but largely unfunded suggestions, initiatives and unenforced mandates."

She said that with millions in federal stimulus dollars rolling into the state for energy programs, there needs to be a better sense of the best way to spend the money.

"Distributing large sums of federal money under these conditions threatens to create ambition without direction — an octopus on roller skates," Richmond-Hall said.


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