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Vermont Leads the Nation on Energy Efficiency

June 3, 2010

More than six weeks after BP’s offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation’s worst oil spill continues to spew thousands of barrels of crude oil into the gulf each day. One important lesson from the slow-motion catastrophe is that America wastes too much energy. It’s a lesson many Vermonters already have learned as we lead the nation in taking dramatic steps toward energy efficiency.

“If there’s a silver lining in this terrible ecological disaster, it would be that we wake up and understand right now that we have to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, away from offshore drilling, and into energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” Senator Bernie Sanders said.

If the United States set a course to mirror what Vermont already has achieved, energy demand would fall significantly.  During the next decade, if every state saved 1.5 percent annually on electricity consumption – a rate slightly less aggressive than what Vermont has achieved—we would save more power than the current capacity of the entire United States nuclear power plant fleet.  Greater efficiency and decreased demand also would save consumers $168 billion on their power bills.

Under such a scenario, peak electric demand would be reduced by 117,000 megawatts by 2020, according to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit. “Vermont is bending the curve thanks to efficiency. It’s the first state to do that,” Sanders said.

Across Vermont, savings from energy efficiency exceeded the growth in electric demand for the past three years, according to data from Efficiency Vermont, a unique provider of energy efficiency services.

Efficiency Vermont is operated by an independent, non-profit organization under contract to the Vermont Public Service Board. Last year, it created the Vermont Community Energy Mobilization, an army of volunteers to knock on doors. The volunteers helped Vermonters make modest efficiency upgrades and taught cost-effective ways to cut back on energy use. “Vermont is the only one I know doing this type of visit,” Paul Markowitz, who coordinated the grassroots effort for Efficiency Vermont. “This exact design, I think is unique.”

A second round of the mobilization effort was undertaken again this spring. By the time it was finished, Markowitz said, hundreds of volunteers had reached nearly 1,300 homes in 34 communities throughout Vermont.

In addition to handing out efficient light bulbs and low-flow shower heads, homeowners received “a walk-through assessment” on how energy could be saved. Markowitz said the goal of the program is to show people, specifically, that “you are losing money right here.”

Cutting back

Burlington, the largest city in the state, used just 1 percent more electricity in 2009 than homeowners and businesses had consumed two decades earlier in 1989. The slight growth in electricity consumption was because of an emphasis on efficiency, said Barbara Grimes, the general manager of the Burlington Electric Department.

caulking “Our rate-payers had a great vision on how we ought to conduct ourselves going forward. It’s been a great model,” she said. “Vermont, as a whole, is considered to be a leader around energy efficiency.” Burlington sliced electricity, in part, by moving away from electric heat and encouraging corner stores to update cooling systems. “We have been doing energy efficiency light bulbs since they first became available,” Grimes added.

Green Mountain Power Corp., Vermont’s second largest electric utility, says electricity usage by the average customer has declined.  “Vermont is a leader in the country in environmental awareness and action,” said Dotty Schnure, the spokeswoman of the Colchester-based utility. “Energy efficiency really fits with Vermont culture, both with being frugal and for the environmental benefits. So it makes sense that Vermont has been a leader.”

Vermont’s efforts to save energy through efficiency won praise from U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The U.S. Department of Energy announced last week that Vermont is the first state to weatherize more than 50 percent of all targeted properties, 847 homes, through a program authorized through the stimulus program. By making low-income homes more energy efficient, families save an average of $437 on their energy bills, according the Energy Department. “States like Vermont are moving forward aggressively with the weatherization program, delivering energy and cost savings for the families who need it most,” said Chu.

Bringing Vermont thinking to Washington

Senator Sanders, who serves on the Senate’s committees dealing with energy and the environment, also is pushing to bolster the country’s auto efficiency standards.

cmte hearingIn the wake of the gulf oil disaster, the senator last week introduced legislation last week that would boost the mandatory fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles to 55 miles per gallon by 2030 to help transform our energy system away from fossil fuels.  That would put the U.S. on a par with China, Japan, Canada, South Korea and nations in Europe that already have more aggressive standards. In Europe, for example, cars already get the equivalent of 42 mpg and by 2020 European cars will be required to get at least 65 mpg.

Sanders’ proposal also would save motorists money. Cars that got 55 mpg would save the equivalent of $1.43 a gallon, a real savings compared to a potential price drop of just 3-cents a gallon from the modest increase in supplies that would result by opening all of America’s coastlines to offshore drilling.

“The risk is just not worth the benefit,” Sanders said.  “We can do a lot more through fuel efficiency — and it’s clean and safe.”

To watch the senator discuss the oil spill on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, click here.

To read the senator’s legislation, click here.  You can read letters of support for the senator’s legislation from Friends of the Earth here, the Union of Concerned Scientists here, Oceana here, and a letter from 22 supportive groups here.

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