• Buttoning up
    January 16,2013

    Legislators should not allow sticker shock to obscure the important findings of a state task force about the benefits of a crash program to improve home energy efficiency.

    The task force looked at the money that Vermonters spend on heating fuel, on the quality of the state’s housing stock and the savings that could be achieved as a result of investments in thermal efficiency. Now it is preparing a report for legislators that calls for $276 million over the next seven years to weatherize 62,000 homes.

    Sticker shock may arise from that $276 million. At a time when the state faces many demands — for everything from clean water to expanded health care coverage to expanded child care — $276 million seems like a lot.

    But set aside that number for a moment and look at some other numbers. In 2010 Vermonters spent about $600 million on fossil-based home heating fuels, largely fuel oil. Most of that money leaves the state’s economy.

    Homeowners who tighten up their homes through air sealing, insulation and efficient heating systems can easily save $1,000 a year. If 80,000 homes were weatherized, Vermonters could save $2 billion over the life of the projects. And weatherization at that scale would create 800 job-years, according to the Department of Public Service, which convened the task force.

    Viewed this way, spending $276 million to save $2 billion begins to sound like a reasonable idea.

    The housing stock in Vermont is one of the oldest in the nation. The numerous 19th-century and early 20th-century homes that create much of the state’s charm in many cases leak like sieves. In the early days, people just threw more wood on the fire and kept their woolens on.

    Meanwhile, most people today burn fuel oil. Thus, home heating is one of the most significant ways that Vermonters contribute to climate change. The task force report says the weatherization effort would prevent 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. It would be the equivalent of removing 680,000 passenger cars from the road for a year.

    The report also describes the economic boost a state weatherization program would create. The $276 million in state spending would “leverage more than $687 million in private sector financing and investment,” according to the report.

    With the help of organizations such as Efficiency Vermont, the state has already undertaken an important effort to help Vermonters tighten up their homes. According to the task force, the state is on pace to weatherize about 18,000 homes by the end of this year. That is a good start. But to reach the goal of weatherizing 80,000 homes by 2020, the state needs to take care of 62,000 additional homes. If the $276 million recommended by the report is broken down, it amounts to about $40 million a year over that seven-year period.

    It was an ambitious goal in 2008 when legislators set a target of 80,000 homes. Now they have a better idea of what it will cost. There is nothing that says they have to stick to their goal, and $276 million may exist mainly as a benchmark, an aspiration. But aspiration is not a bad thing.

    As legislators sift through the many proposals making demands on the state budget, they ought to remember the multiple benefits of the weatherization program: saving money for homeowners, curbing the emission of greenhouse gases and creating jobs. Thus, in many ways weatherization is both an environmental program and an economic stimulus program.

    Proposals for paying for the program have focused on some sort of fuel tax, which is an unpopular idea among people for whom the cost of fuel oil is already a burden. There is no pain-free way of raising $40 million a year. But taxing carbon is also one of the best ways of discouraging its use. One thing is certain: The price of carbon can be counted on to continue going up, in more ways than one.

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