You Paid for It: Energy Efficiency Charge

Published 01/29 2014 05:27PM

Updated 07/15 2015 01:14PM

COLCHESTER, Vt. - For the second year in a row, Vermont's energy efficiency charge is going up. The February 1st, seven-percent increase isn't sitting well with people like Janice Gambero of Alburgh.

"No, you can't shrug that off. This is affecting Vermonters- all Vermonters. Many people cannot afford to pay these extra fees,” Gambero said.

She worries the fee, set by the Public Service Board, is growing uncontrollably. It's based on usage - in December, Janice was charged $8.

"How do they use that money, what are they spending it on, how much are they spending on it?" she asks.

Since 2000 most of that money has gone straight to Efficiency Vermont, a private, non-profit company overseen by the Public Service Department. It's goal: cut energy usage in Vermont and save the state, and rate payers, money. Last year its budget to do that was over 40 million dollars.

Jim Merriam is Efficiency Vermont's director.

"Efficiency actually always generates a positive benefit for Vermonters, So for every dollar on average someone contributes its generating two dollars of direct benefits," Merriam said.

He says Efficiency Vermont does not ask the state for more money each year. The PSB sets its budget - and the efficiency charge you see on your power bill - based on how much energy the board thinks the state needs to save.

"They look at efficiency as a tool to be able to keep our electric system wide costs lower, and they plan with the utilities. They look at load, they look at demand, and then they factor in how much efficiency they actually have to purchase," he said.

According to the Public Service Department, Efficiency Vermont's efforts have so far been pretty successful. Deputy Commissioner of the Public Service Department, Darren Springer, says “there's no question that the data shows that had we not done what we've done over the last 10-12 years we'd be paying more for electricity, we'd be using more electricity, Carbon emissions would be up, and we wouldn't have the economic benefit of efficiency.”

To the average person like Janice Gambero, the benefits are hard to see.

"That's hard to believe. I don't see anyone's utility bills dropping," she said.

Utilities like Green Mountain Power admit your bills aren't exactly going down, but officials say without Efficiency Vermont's efforts they would actually be going up.

"We see that it’s really helped reduce overall electric use and helped keep the peak periods down which is very costly so it’s very beneficial to all of our customers to operate these programs," spokeswoman Dotty Schnure said.

Offering energy efficient light bulbs at a heavily reduced cost is one of the most popular programs Efficiency Vermont offers. In 2012 alone more than thirty thousand Vermonters participated.

"Efficiency Vermont works as distributors and retailers to actually buy down the price of that bulb so when it hits the store shelf its 99 cents. There’s no rebate forms that anybody has to fill out, all the work has been done,” Merriam said.

Efficiency Vermont spent 2.7 million dollars on advertising in 2013, with around $300,000 promoting those cheap bulbs. According to Efficiency Vermont & retailers, the ads are working.

"I can't keep them in the stores, I’m going through every week and ordering extras but I can't keep up with the demand," Scott Law says. He’s the manager at Aubuchon Hardware in Shelburne.

Buying just a few bulbs that would normally be 8 or 9 dollars at the discounted rate can quickly recoup months of energy efficiency charges paid. Plus, the bulbs use less energy, and can lead to lower power bills in the future.

While State Senator Bob Hartwell applauds Efficiency Vermont's efforts, he still has concerns. He worries the legislature has given the PSB too much control over raising the energy efficiency charge.

"I have some misgivings about it anyway because I really think that's a legislative responsibility to do that. The legislature is not sufficiently involved in my view in setting the charge and we also are not doing an adequate job of find out what's really going on,” the democrat from Bennington said.

For now the power to increase the fee remains with the public service board, and it very well may keep going up.

"We try to look at all the different factors, get the best value for the rate payer. It’s possible it could continue to go up if it continues to be a good deal,” Springer said.

As long as the state feels Efficiency Vermont is helping rate payers throughout the state save money, there is no cap on how high the fee could go.

Senator Hartwell has proposed a bill in the legislature that would divert more of the Efficiency Vermont funds to thermal energy - right now most of the funds are focused on saving on electricity. Another bill would give businesses a break on the fee, if they can prove they're going the extra mile to be energy efficient. Neither would set a cap on just how high the fee could go down the road.

Learn more about Efficiency Vermont’s programs, and how you can save more energy and money, here.

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