Use this page to get answers to some of the most-asked questions about energy efficiency and electrification. Have questions you don’t see here? Email vpirg@vpirg.org. Click on a question in the table of contents below to navigate to the answer.

**We’ve also produced a video series on efficiency and electrification. Watch one or all four videos in that that series here!.**

Table of Contents

Q: What is energy efficiency?

Q: What is energy conservation?

Q: What is emissions efficiency?

Q: How does efficiency fit into Vermont’s goal of 90% renewable energy by 2050? Can efficiency be an alternative to building renewable energy?

Q: Can I save money by being energy efficient? Can those savings offset the upfront cost of efficiency efforts?

Q: What is Vermont’s efficiency program and how did it start?

Q: What is the Vermont Energy Innovation Program (aka Tier III)?

Q: What is the Energy Efficiency Charge on my electric bill?

Q: Are there incentives for efficiency and weatherization measures?

Q: What services do my efficiency utilities provide and how do I take advantage of them?

Q: How does Vermont’s weatherization assistance program work?

Q: How do I figure out who to work with for my efficiency project?

Q: I’m not a homeowner. How do the efficiency programs help me?

Q: What are appliance efficiency standards and why do they matter?

Q: What is Energy Star, and is it going away under the Trump Administration?

Q: What about using biomass for electricity and/or heat?

Further reading


Q: What is energy efficiency?

A: Energy efficiency is the practice of reducing energy wasted to provide products or services. We can reduce our overall energy usage through, among other things, more efficient appliances, weatherizing homes and other buildings, and strategic electrification of heating and transportation. Efficiency reduces demand for both polluting fossil fuels and energy more generally.

Efficiency is all about getting the most bang for your buck, ensuring that energy is being used to its highest potential and isn’t wasted. Efficiency efforts include changing out old or inefficient home and business appliances, choosing more fuel efficient vehicles, insulating homes, switching to more efficient heating systems, and other efforts that conserve fuel or use it more wisely.

Older appliances are often energy intensive, using a lot more energy than their newer counterparts. Switching those out can mean big savings on fuel use and energy bills. Not all newer appliances are equally efficient though, so look for Energy Star appliances, and for energy usage labels when you’re comparison shopping.

Similarly, homes that are poorly insulated or drafty take significantly more heat to keep warm, with heat escaping and cold air coming in through unsealed cracks. Additionally, there are more and more options for fuel efficient cars that get significantly higher miles per gallon thanks to federal requirements, and to advances in hybrid vehicle technology in particular.

Strategic electrification of heating and transportation refers to replacing fossil fuel powered cars and heaters with efficient electric alternatives. Vermont has some of the cleanest electricity in the country, but when it comes to getting around and heating our homes and businesses, we’ve still got a long way to go. However, electric solutions are rapidly becoming more affordable and more efficient. And since our electricity will keep getting cleaner, thanks to Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard, those electric solutions will keep getting greener. Therefore to truly decrease and clean up our total energy use, strategic electrification will be an increasing part of Vermont’s energy efficiency work moving forward.

Efficiency results in using less energy, which reduces both fossil fuel use and energy costs overall. Electric efficiency and strategic electrification efforts also improve the reliability of the electric system by reducing strain on the grid.[1]

To learn more about the benefits of efficiency to Vermont, read about the Vermont efficiency program below.

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Q: What is energy conservation?

A:  Like energy efficiency, energy conservation is also an effort to reduce energy consumption and therefore energy pollution. Conservation is the practice of changing your behavior to use less energy through turning off the lights and appliances when not in use, driving less, and generally practicing less energy intensive behavior.

Where energy efficiency involves new products, services, or upgrades to existing appliances or structures, conservation is about changing behavior to reduce energy use. As we face an ever-worsening climate crisis and better understand the impacts of our energy use, conservation remains a critical piece of how we can impact our own energy footprint. Technology solutions to transform the way we make and use energy are necessary for broad system change, but simply changing behavior to use less energy can add up to make a big difference, if enough people take part. Energy efficiency and renewable energy development go hand in hand with conservation, and no one piece can solve this puzzle alone.

Conservation efforts include turning off lights and appliances when they’re not being used and in general using those appliances less. The way you use your appliances can also make a difference: turning your refrigerator down, using cool instead of warm or hot water for your washing machine, and air drying rather than heat drying your dishes all make an impact on your home energy use. Biking, walking, and using public transportation more helps avoid single-occupancy vehicle trips and driving time in general.

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Q:What is emissions efficiency?

A: Emissions efficiency is another way to look at overall energy efficiency. This metric looks at the total greenhouse gas emissions from the energy used to understand how emissions can decrease even if electric consumption increases, and which efficiency measures are the most effective at reducing carbon pollution. [2] 

Examining efficiency through the newer metric of emissions efficiency is a way to ensure that efficiency efforts are maximizing reduction in carbon pollution. While historically people have often looked only at electric efficiency (whether your total electric usage is going down) and building weatherization, emissions efficiency can be a helpful metric to quantify the big picture impacts of an investment. If electric usage goes up but total energy use, carbon pollution, and energy expenses go down, that’s still a win. Emissions efficiency helps capture that concept by looking at the impacts of the whole energy system simultaneously, rather than restricting its analysis to one sector (electricity, heating, transportation) at a time.

Emissions efficiency is particularly helpful when looking at strategic electrification efforts. For instance, installing a cold climate heat pump will increase your electric use (since the heat pump is powered by electricity, and presumably offsetting a fossil fuel burning heater). However, in terms of overall energy use and carbon pollution, heat pumps are much more efficient than their fossil fuel burning brethren.[3] So, while electricity use goes up, total energy use goes down – even when taking into account all the energy used to generate the electricity needed to power the heat pump (more on that here, if you want the gory details). Similarly, electric cars are more efficient in terms of energy (and dollars!) per mile than traditional gas cars.[4]

These comparisons are based on our current electric grid, which is only partially powered by renewables. Today, Vermont utilities are legally required to provide at least 55% renewable electricity to their customers thanks to Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard, and that number grows to 75% by 2032 (two utilities, Burlington Electric and Washington Electric, are already 100% renewable). As the grid gets more and more renewable, electric powered cars, heat pumps, and appliances look even better in terms of their emissions efficiency.[5] That’s why the third tier of the Renewable Energy Standard, the Vermont Energy Innovation Program, mandates that utilities support their customers’ transition off of fossil fuels to electric and other emissions efficient solutions.

Since Vermont has a state goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 (from 1990 levels), VPIRG has increasingly used emissions efficiency when analyzing potential state policies, rather than only looking at electric efficiency in isolation as we strive to meet that goal.

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Q: How does efficiency fit into Vermont’s goal of 90% renewable energy by 2050? Can efficiency be an alternative to building renewable energy?

A: Efficiency is an essential foundation necessary for meeting our 90% renewable energy goal. That goal covers all energy, including electricity, heating, and transportation. Aggressive efficiency efforts are part of every analysis of how we hit that goal. In fact, Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan explicitly lays out a goal of reducing energy consumption per capita by “more than one third by 2050.” Put another way, the bare minimum efficiency we need to do to hit 90% is more than we are doing today. Efficiency and renewables aren’t alternatives to each other – they’re critical complements that together make 90% or 100% renewable possible.

Vermont’s goal of 90% renewable energy by 2050 accounts for total energy, which includes all energy used in the state. This can be roughly broken down into three broad areas: electricity, transportation, and heating. Each of these have huge opportunities for efficiency.

On electricity, it’s crucial to make our electric use as efficient as possible. While we are still somewhat reliant on fossil fuel generation, electric efficiency will reduce that reliance. As we transition to renewable energy powering our electric grid, efficiency will ensure we’re only building the generation we truly need as a state, and will continue to save Vermonters money. The good news is electric efficiency is one area where Vermont has made enormous strides – though there is still much work to do. See below for more on our progress on efficiency thus far.

On transportation, fuel efficient vehicles have become more and more commonplace in the past decade, and continue to improve. One step better is cutting out gas entirely by switching to electric vehicles (EVs). While this will have the effect of increasing electric use, they are far more efficient in their use of energy overall, as we discuss above. Electric vehicle technology currently looks more promising in terms of environmental benefits and scalability than other gas alternatives, and availability and price will continue to improve as battery technology improves and demand increases, with one key analysis predicting that falling battery prices will mean EVs will be cheaper off the lot than conventional gas cars in less than a decade (they’re already cheaper to own and operate).

Transportation efficiency also involves the critical work of getting people out of their cars and reducing the number of trips Vermonters take alone in their cars. Solutions include building a robust public transportation system (ideally powered by electric buses and trains!), supporting vibrant downtowns that encourage more biking and walking and fewer long car trips, and ensuring Vermonters have access to reliable internet service so that working from home is a viable and efficient option. VPIRG is part of a new coalition of Vermont organizations, Transportation for Vermonters, that is focused on how we can build a more sustainable, accessible, and affordable transportation system in Vermont.

On heating, there are several alternatives to traditional oil or gas powered heaters that are both more efficient and have a higher renewable potential. While even the best traditional electric heaters are inefficient, cold climate air-source heat pumps are electric powered and are among the most efficient heating options for Vermonters, even when taking into account the energy needed to generate the electricity that runs them. Geothermal heat pumps are even more efficient, though generally more expensive to install. Similar to electric cars, heat pumps will increase electric use while simultaneously greatly increase efficiency overall.

There are also a number of modern wood heat options which are much more efficient than older units, have significantly less carbon pollution, and are typically more cost effective than oil or gas-fired furnaces or boilers. Advanced wood heating systems like wood pellet or wood chip boilers are even more efficient, and are automated just like their fossil fuel counterparts. Both wood heat and heat pumps have typically only supplemented an existing heating system to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but the newest units can entirely replace a home’s fossil fuel heating system.

As a state, we are making progress on all three areas to efficiently transform our energy use to 90% renewable by 2050. The Vermont Energy Innovation Program in our Renewable Energy Standard is a critical part of that process. Since both transportation and heating options can include increased electric use, building out renewable electric sources like solar and wind today is essential to support that future growth in electricity demand.

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Q: Can I save money by being energy efficient?  Can those savings offset the upfront cost of efficiency efforts?

A: The more efficient your energy use is, the less you have to spend on it. While most efforts to maximize efficiency require some upfront investment, the cost savings mean that over the life of the investment, you’ll almost always save far more money than you paid.

A simple example of energy efficiency and cost savings is changing out your lightbulbs. Old incandescent bulbs created light by heating up a thin piece of metal, meaning that more energy went into creating heat than into the light that was actually the point of the thing. That’s an example of wasted energy – those lightbulbs used 90% of the energy to give off heat, so you were mostly paying for electricity that wasn’t accomplishing the goal of the lightbulb – to create light.[6] LED lights last at least 25 times longer than those incandescent bulbs and use at least 75% less energy to run than incandescent bulbs.[7] All that results in an LED lightbulb saving you about 84% between bulb replacements and energy costs over 23 years (the typical life of an LED bulb on for three hours per day), even when you factor the higher upfront cost of the bulb in.

Flow Chart

 

Lightbulbs are just the beginning. Replacing more energy intensive (and frequently used) appliances like refrigerators and washing machines with efficient models can bring in some significant savings. The US Department of Energy has a calculator that allows you to plug in the details for different appliances to calculate approximately how much they’re costing you to run. The savings continue if you look at fuel efficient or electric vehicles. DriveElectricVT shows how an average Vermonter could save between $10,000 and $20,000 over five years by driving an electric vehicle through avoided maintenance and fuel costs (depending on the car and miles driven).[9]

Even Vermonters who don’t actively look to switch to efficient products take advantage of cost savings. Thanks to the work of Vermont’s efficiency utilities, particularly Efficiency Vermont, the average electricity bill for a Vermonter is among the lowest in the nation.[10] Investments in efficiency have successfully reduced demand on the grid. This reduces the need for expensive infrastructure investments and reduces our demand for expensive power during periods of peak power demand, which reduces electric costs statewide for every Vermont ratepayer.[11] In addition, these programs have helped bring down the cost for efficient appliances and bring these products into Vermont.

There are additionally Federal standards that govern how efficient appliances have to be to be sold in the U.S. Even though you might not be aware of those standards, they prevent Vermonters from buying extremely inefficient appliances that will waste energy and money over time. Due to both of these programs, if you’ve made a new appliance purchase recently, it’s likely that you ended up with an appliance that will save you money over the long term thanks to its efficiency. Learn more about how this works and the other services that the efficiency utilities offer below.

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Q: What is Vermont’s efficiency program and how did it start?

A: Energy efficiency efforts started due to the realization that our current fuel sources were limited and causing harm to our environment. Vermont understood that prioritizing energy efficiency could bring significant economic and environmental benefits to the entire state. Our state became the first in the nation to create a centralized efficiency utility responsible for helping Vermonters become more efficient and helping the state to reduce its energy usage.

Modern energy efficiency efforts have their roots in the 1973 oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis. As electric prices skyrocketed and Americans realized that fuel scarcity was a reality, utilities and regulators identified a need to slow or even reverse the steep growth in electric demand nationwide. Even after that crisis, many Americans continued to understand that energy efficiency was important for both environmental and economic reasons. Investing in efficiency was and is much more cost effective than investing in new poles, wires, and power plants to support a growing energy load.

For these reasons, Vermont has long prioritized efficiency and conservation. Particularly in our cold climate, assisting Vermonters with weatherizing their homes to save heat in the winter is necessary for the health and safety of Vermonters. Reduced fuel use leads to significant environmental and economic benefits for individuals and the state as a whole.

Flow Chart

In the 1990s, Vermont’s electric utilities were required to provide efficiency services to their customers. Those services were inconsistent across the state, with some utilities providing better service (and seeing more success) than others. As a result, Vermonters’ access to efficiency varied widely based on where they lived – and the state as a whole was missing out on big savings. In 1999, that changed as Vermont passed legislation to become the first state to create an entity, called an energy efficiency utility, to focus on reducing electric use statewide.

VPIRG advocated for this legislation and the benefits of funding and focusing on this statewide priority to help all Vermonters save energy and money. Most of the state is served by Efficiency Vermont, a non-profit entity administered by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. The only exception is electric customers of Burlington Electric Department (BED). Given BED’s strong history of efficiency efforts, and Burlington’s differing needs as Vermont’s largest city, they have continued to provide efficiency services for their customers. On the heating side, starting in 2017 Vermont Gas became the third entity to be regulated as an energy efficiency utility as it continued to support efforts to improve efficiency for its customers’ heating needs. Learn more below about other efficiency efforts for heating in Vermont.

Centralizing and regulating the efficiency programs eliminated a tension between utility regulation and efficiency efforts. Utilities and power suppliers are usually financially rewarded for selling electricity and investing in new infrastructure. Efficiency reduces electric sales, which cuts into a utility’s profits.[12] It also reduces the need for new infrastructure for generation, transmission, and distribution, another traditional profit maker for power providers.[13] Creating a separate, non-profit entity helped ensure a strong focus on efficiency across the state. In addition, it allows the state to calculate the costs and benefits of the program and ensure that those costs and benefits are shared equitably among ratepayers and participants.

These programs are partially funded by an Energy Efficiency Charge that all customers pay on their electric bills. The current charge is about $0.01/kilowatt-hour. See below for more about this charge and how it works.

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Q: What is the Vermont Energy Innovation Program (aka Tier III)?

A: The Vermont Energy Innovation Program, or Tier III of Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard, is the most important single policy Vermont has every adopted to reduce our carbon pollution. It mandates that Vermont’s electric utilities support their customers’ transition off of fossil fuels for heating and transportation to options that are more emissions efficient.

Also known as Tier III of Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES), the Vermont Energy Innovation Program was signed into law in 2015. Just as the first tier of the RES requires utilities to provide increasing levels of renewable electricity (starting at 55% this year and increasing to 75% in 2032), the Vermont Energy Innovation Program requires utilities to continuously ratchet up their support for their customers’ transition off of fossil fuels for heating and transportation.

The Program starts at the equivalent of 2% of each utility’s electric load and increases by 0.67% each year to 12% in 2032. That means more and more Vermonters will be assisted in their move away from fossil fuels for their heating and transportation needs every year. This promotes strategic electrification and heating and transportation options that are more emissions efficient.

Each utility has a different strategy for meeting its requirement and ensuring Vermonters are transitioning off fossil fuels. These efforts include incentives and/or on-bill financing for cold climate heat pumps and water heaters, pellet stoves, smart thermostats, and weatherization efforts; electric vehicles and charging stations; and discounted power line extensions to serve large users who are currently powered solely by fossil fuel generators.

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Q: What is the Energy Efficiency Charge on my electric bill?

A: The Energy Efficiency Charge funds the statewide electric efficiency program, meaning that the money goes back to Vermonters and ultimately benefits the state. The charge is determined by the Public Utilities Commission in an annual proceeding.

Every month on your electric bill, you’ll see a line item called the Energy Efficiency Charge. For residential customers, this is about $0.01 per kilowatt hour, which comes out to about $7 per month. The funds go into a statewide efficiency fund, which funds electric efficiency services provided by the energy efficiency utilities to ratepayers.

The budget for the efficiency utilities is determined on a three-year cycle, in a proceeding where the Commission reviews the proposed actions and corresponding budget for the efficiency utilities. The Commission determines the costs (the Energy Efficiency Charge), the benefits, and the progress toward Vermont’s goals around efficiency, which include reducing power needs and costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and electric infrastructure needs, that will be achieved.[14]

Each year, the Board looks back at the approved budget and what was actually raised by the Energy Efficiency Charge, which varies based on electric use that year. They reconcile the difference to determine the charge for the next year. For example, in 2016 electricity purchases were significantly lower than expected due to the abnormally warm winter, which meant less money was put into the efficiency fund than expected. This led to a larger than expected increase in the charge for 2017 to meet the approved budget. Going into 2018, the Energy Efficiency Charge is expected to stay approximately the same as 2017.

There are a few aspects of Vermont’s efficiency program that are separately funded, in particular funding for heat and weatherization. Funding for heating efficiency is provided in part by revenue from the Vermont Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. For low income Vermonters, the weatherization assistance program is separately funded through the fuel gross receipts tax, with the federal government also providing a small amount of additional funding. Read more about Vermont’s low income weatherization program below.

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Q: Are there incentives for efficiency and weatherization measures?

A: Yes. Vermont efficiency programs offer rebates for efficient products and weatherization services. In addition, the state offers assistance for weatherization for low income Vermonters. Finally, Vermont utilities are offering incentives for certain transportation and heating alternatives as part of the Vermont Energy Innovation Program.

Depending on your utility territory for electricity and gas, you are eligible for rebates from Efficiency Vermont or Burlington Electric Department for electric efficiency measures and Vermont Gas Systems (if you’re a VGS customer), BED (if you’re a BED customer but not a VGS customer) or Efficiency Vermont (if you’re neither a BED nor a VGS customer) for heating efficiency.  For more information on the services provided by efficiency utilities, see below.

In addition, the Vermont Agency of Human Services runs a weatherization assistance program to help families save money. If your household income is at or below 80% of median income, you are eligible[15] for weatherization services, which include a home assessment followed by heating and insulation upgrades. To learn more about the weatherization assistance program, see below.

Finally, most of Vermont’s electric utilities are offering incentives and/or on-bill financing programs for products including heat pumps, electric vehicles, and weatherization services as part of the Vermont Energy Innovation Program. Contact your utility to learn more about their programs.

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Q: What services do my efficiency utilities provide and how do I take advantage of them?

A: Vermont’s energy efficiency utilities provide help for Vermont homes and businesses looking to become more efficient every step of the way, from education to financial incentives. In addition, the efficiency program helps all Vermonters reduce energy use by making more efficient appliances readily available.

From efficiency rookies to energy saving pros, your efficiency utility is always a good place to start when you’re thinking about ways to save energy (and money). First, they provide education, both on what constitutes an efficient product or service, as well as which products are best in class. Second, as mentioned above, they provide financial incentives for many of the most efficient products. Typically these incentives are in the form of a rebate, or a partial refund based on the upfront cost of the equipment. And Efficiency Vermont and Vermont Gas also provide rebates insulation and air sealing (aka “weatherization”) for Vermonters looking to cut their heating costs, both for existing buildings and for new construction.

Finally, they provide expertise and advice when you’re looking at taking on an energy efficiency project. If you’re building a home and want to make sure you’re starting off on the right foot to build an efficient home, you can connect with energy experts who can teach you about home design options like passive solar that can provide huge savings upfront. If you’re looking to retrofit your existing home, they will connect you with an energy expert who can help you do an assessment of your home or business. That will determine the low hanging fruit to make your home more efficient. To get started, see below to figure out who your provider is.

In addition to these direct services, efficiency utilities influence the entire home appliance market to bring more efficient products to Vermonters. Efficiency experts do the necessary research to determine the best-in-class efficient products. Then they negotiate with those manufacturers to offer lower prices on those products for Vermonters, in exchange for the manufacturers knowing they’ll be able to sell a critical mass of the product in Vermont. These are called “upstream incentives.” You might never actually see the incentive at work, but you’ll just see a cheaper, more efficient appliance at the retailer.

The results: 1) an increase in efficient appliances available to Vermonters, which increases the likelihood that Vermonters will buy more efficient appliances, even when they’re not already thinking about it, and 2) motivation for manufacturers to continue developing more efficient products to keep up with demand from consumers.

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Q: How does Vermont’s weatherization assistance program work?

A: Helping low income Vermonters weatherize their homes is a critical part of our state efficiency efforts, so the state has a program to provide these services for free to a number of eligible homes each year. Unfortunately, the program is currently underfunded and can only serve a fraction of the homes that need it.

Low income weatherization is a critical part of efficiency efforts: it tightens up homes that need it the most, creating significant financial relief for those homeowners who struggle to pay their energy bills. Vermont is ranked 51st in the U.S. for energy affordability and has the second oldest housing stock in the nation, making our homes highly likely to have poor insulation and inefficient heating systems. Depending on fuel prices, weatherizing homes can save a household $400-600 in energy costs per year. For oil-heated homes, weatherizing can reduce usage by 150-230 gallons every year.[16]

Vermont’s weatherization assistance program is administered through the Department of Children and Families (DCF). You can learn more about eligibility and services at their website. If you think you’re eligible, visit the Weatherization Partners listing to determine which partner works in your area. There are six weatherization partners in the state, and you’ll apply for services directly through the provider for your region.

The weatherization program is primarily funded through a tax on retail heating fuel and electric sales. In the 2016 legislative session, this tax was increased for the first time since it was created in 1990, which will allow a greater number of homes to be weatherized this year. But the funding still falls far short of what we need to do to help these families and decrease energy use statewide. In 2007, Vermont set a goal of weatherizing 20,000 additional low income homes by 2020. In order to reach that goal, we should be weatherizing over 3000 low-income homes per year. Even with the increased funding in 2016, the program supports weatherizing fewer than 1000 homes each year.[17]

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Q: How do I figure out who to work with for my efficiency project?

A: Your efficiency provider depends on a few factors, including who your electric utility is and what kind of efficiency work you’re interested in. Follow our handy flow chart to figure it out!

Flow Chart

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Q: I’m not a homeowner. How do the efficiency programs help me?

A: Efficiency services benefit all Vermonters by providing savings for the entire state, and provide important educational materials so that you can be a smart consumer in the future.

Even renters can benefit from efficiency efforts in a few ways. Most renters are still responsible for their own electric bills, and while some large appliances are out of your control (refrigerators, for instance), many others aren’t. Using LED lightbulbs or other energy efficient appliances in your apartment will save money while you’re living there, and you can bring them with you to your next spot. Most Vermonters also have at least one car, so investing in or learning about more efficient transportation options is an important way to start taking action.[18] 

As described above, efficiency efforts help all ratepayers by preventing the need for expensive infrastructure projects that increase rates for all customers. In addition to those benefits, which every single Vermont ratepayer sees, Efficiency Vermont’s work brings more efficient appliances to the Vermont market. In fact, two separate estimates concluded that better than nine in ten Vermonters have directly participated in Efficiency Vermont’s work, even though many may not realize it.

Even more importantly, if you’re thinking about buying a home in the future, it makes sense to get educated on efficiency now! Learning more about efficient home design, heating sources, and appliances will help you understand whether a home you’re looking at is an energy saver or an energy waster, and whether you’ll have to spend more in the future on retrofit projects.

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Q: What are appliance efficiency standards and why do they matter?

A: Appliance efficiency standards set a minimum acceptable threshold efficiency level for appliances and lightbulbs for your home and business. These standards save Vermonters hundreds of dollars every year, and are highly effective at reducing pollution and saving water.

Starting with the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, passed under Republican President Gerald Ford, laws and regulations setting minimum standards for appliance efficiency have been passed and strengthened under administrations of both parties. The reason is simple: appliance efficiency standards save money, and lots of it; nationally, the existing standards will save $2.4 trillion for U.S. consumers and businesses by 2030. In Vermont alone, consumers save about $555 each year on their electric bills thanks to appliance efficiency standards.[19]

Appliance efficiency standards protect consumers against the hidden “second price tag” of appliances: the cost of the energy needed to power those appliances over time. By setting a minimum threshold, these standards ensure American consumers are protected from the exorbitant energy bills that would have come along with the most inefficient products otherwise, saving everyone energy and money. Unfortunately, under the Trump administration, activity on federal standards has stalled, and Congress is threatening to go backwards.

In 2017, VPIRG successfully advocated for the Vermont Legislature to pass H.411, which mandates that if the existing Federal standards are repealed, rolled back, or withdrawn, Vermont will adopt those same standards as they exist today. In addition, H.411 mandates that if the minimum efficiency standard for lightbulbs does not go into effect as planned in 2020, Vermont will adopt that standard as its own. In 2018, VPIRG will advocate for Vermont to expand state standards to include additional products that aren’t currently covered by a Federal standard, like computers and computer monitors.

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Q: What is Energy Star, and is it going away under the Trump Administration?

A: Energy Star is a joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to provide transparency and data around the efficiency of products. Energy Star does the research and testing on new products to validate whether they’re truly energy efficient, so consumers can have confidence that they’re buying the most efficient appliances.

Energy Star was first established in 1992 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a goal to save consumers, business, and industry money and energy through energy efficiency efforts. Unlike other EPA programs, Energy Star is a fully voluntary program that seeks to identify efficient products and services to help consumers and businesses who are actively trying to reduce their energy use. The program claims a total of $430 billion in utility bill savings and 2.7 billion metric tons in carbon pollution reduction since 1992.[20]

Today, most American consumers recognize the blue Energy Star label as an indicator of efficient products.[21] Energy Star products include appliances, computer equipment, HVAC equipment, and lighting, to name just a few. New buildings can also be certified as Energy Star homes if they meet the appropriate threshold for energy use for their construction type.

President Trump has proposed eliminating this popular program as part of his budget, as part of his massive proposed cuts to both the EPA and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). If this program is cut, it would be nearly impossible for other state and industry level programs to compensate for the breadth and name recognition of the Energy Star program, particularly in the short term, which would have a direct impact on consumers’ savings and carbon pollution reductions.

Appliance efficiency standards and Energy Star work in the same arena, but both serve a distinct purpose. Appliance standards are mandatory and mostly invisible to the consumer (meaning you’ll get a more efficient appliance even if that wasn’t something you were considering). By establishing a minimum efficiency level for a type of appliances, the standard removes the most energy wasteful products from the market. Energy Star, on the other hand, is a fully voluntary program that helps consumers identify the most efficient products on the market. So appliance standards weed out the worst products, and Energy Star helps identify the best.

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Q: What about using biomass for electricity and/or heat?

A: VPIRG does not support new biomass electric plants. Electric biomass plants are relatively inefficient, meaning that their overall impact on carbon emissions can actually be worse than burning fossil fuels. However, VPIRG supports modern wood heating systems, which are highly efficient, as a key part of the mix needed to transition our heating sector off of fossil fuels.

According to several national studies, burning biomass for electricity is, for a period of decades, worse from a climate standpoint than burning fossil fuels.[22],[23] This is in large part due to the efficiency of the plants, which is generally around 20-25%. Put another way, 75%+ of the energy in the wood being burned is wasted. That’s why VPIRG opposed biomass electric plants being treated as equivalent to other renewable energy in the legislative debate around a Renewable Energy Standard in 2012, and why we opposed the 2016 federal energy bill, which would have inaccurately declared biomass “carbon neutral,” circumventing the actual science being done on the issue at the EPA.

VPIRG does support modern wood heating systems as part of the mix needed to transition our heating sector off of fossil fuels. Unlike biomass electric plants, modern wood heating is 80%+ efficient. So that same wood that would have had three quarters or more of its energy wasted in a biomass electric plant instead has 80-85% of its energy used, and very little wasted. That’s critical when looking at the climate impacts of the different forms of biomass energy.

A study of pellet plants in the northeast (including one in Vermont) found that, from day one, pellets produced at those plants reduced carbon pollution when burned for heat – by over 50% when compared to oil heating.[24] Similarly, a report by Manomet found that when used for heat, wood would be 25% better than oil from a climate standpoint in 2050.

While estimates of the climate impact of wood energy obviously vary, they consistently find that biomass electricity is worse than biomass heat – and they consistently find that biomass for heat, especially when used in a high-efficiency modern wood heating application and when burning locally, sustainably produced wood, is better than fossil fuels after a fairly short period of time.

For that reason, biomass has an important role in moving our heating sector away from fossil fuels. That said, electrification (of both our heating and our transportation sectors) has a more critical part to play, and VPIRG will continue to advocate for transportation and heating electrification through smart policy solutions that support our local economy and protect our environment.

Further Reading
Interested in learning more? Below are some additional external resources on energy efficiency and strategic electrification.

Vox: The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything, by David Roberts

Synapse Energy Economics: Decarbonizing the Northeast: It’s (Strategically) Electrifying! An easy read about what strategic electrification means and how it’s working for Northeast states.

NEEP: Strategic Electrification: An Energy Transformaion. A deeper look into strategic electrification and what it means for industry and the grid.

NEEP: Vermont Embarks Upon Landmark Strategic Electrification Program. A summary of the Vermont Energy Innovation Program (also known as Tier 3 of the Renewable Energy Standard) and what makes it so innovative.

 

[1] Sandra Levine and Katie Kendall, “Energy Efficiency and Conservation: Opportunities, Obstacles, and Experiences.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 8, Issue 1, Vermont Law School, July 2013, p. 101. http://vjel.vermontlaw.edu/files/2013/07/Energy-Efficiency-and-Conservation.pdf. (accessed December 12, 2016)

[2] The term emissions efficiency (or “emiciency”) was first used in the paper “Environmentally beneficial electrification: The dawn of ‘emissions efficiency’” co-authored by Keith Dennis (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association), Ken Colburn and Jim Lazar (both of RAP). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040619016301075

[3] Efficiency Vermont. “Heat Pumps.”  https://www.efficiencyvermont.com/products-technologies/heating-cooling-ventilation/heat-pumps. (accessed November 30, 2016)

[4] Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, “Where the Energy Goes: Electric Cars,” www.fueleconomy.gov. https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/atv-ev.shtml. (accessed November 20, 2017)

[5] Reichmuth, David. “New Numbers Are In and EVs Are Cleaner Than Ever,” Union of Concerned Scientists, May 31, 2017. http://blog.ucsusa.org/dave-reichmuth/new-numbers-are-in-and-evs-are-cleaner-than-ever. (accessed Nov. 20, 2017)

[6] US Department of Energy. “Lighting Choices to Save You Money,” Energy Saver. http://www.energy.gov/energysaver/lighting-choices-save-you-money. (accessed December 1, 2016)

[7] US Department of Energy. “LED Lighting,” Energy Saver. http://energy.gov/energysaver/led-lighting. (accessed December 13, 2016)

[8]  Adapted from Holly Johnson, “Light Bulb Showdown: LED vs. CFL vs. Incandescent,” The Simple Dollar. http://www.thesimpledollar.com/the-light-bulb-showdown-leds-vs-cfls-vs-incandescent-bulbs-whats-the-best-deal-now-and-in-the-future/. (accessed November 17, 2017) This chart has been adapted to reflect current LED prices and Vermont electric rates.

[9] DriveElectric Vermont. “Electric Vehicles Cost Less!” Blog. https://www.driveelectricvt.com/blog/electric-vehicles-cost-less. (accessed November 17, 2017)

[10] Energy Information Administration, 2016 Average Monthly Bill- Residential. https://www.eia.gov/electricity/sales_revenue_price/pdf/table5_a.pdf (accessed November 17, 2017)

[11] Sandra Levine and Katie Kendall, “Energy Efficiency and Conservation: Opportunities, Obstacles, and Experiences.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 8, Issue 1, Vermont Law School, July 2013. http://vjel.vermontlaw.edu/files/2013/07/Energy-Efficiency-and-Conservation.pdf. (accessed December 13, 2016)

[12] Sandra Levine and Katie Kendall, “Energy Efficiency and Conservation: Opportunities, Obstacles, and Experiences.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 8, Issue 1, Vermont Law School, July 2013, p. 104. http://vjel.vermontlaw.edu/files/2013/07/Energy-Efficiency-and-Conservation.pdf. (accessed December 9, 2016)

[13] Ibid 105

[14] Vermont Statutes, 30 VSA § 209 (d)(3).

[15] For full eligibility details, see: State of Vermont. Agency of Human Services, Department for Children and Families. “The Weatherization Program,” 2016. http://dcf.vermont.gov/benefits/weatherization. (accessed December 5, 2016)

[16] http://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2016/WorkGroups/Senate%20Appropriations/FY%202017%20Budget/12%20Advocates%20Hearing%20Testimony-FY%202017%20Budget%20(H.875)/W~Paul%20Zabriskie~VT%20Low%20Income%20Weatherization%20Assistance%20Program~4-5-2016.pdf

[17] Ibid

[18] Efficiency Vermont. “Transportation Efficiency.” https://www.efficiencyvermont.com/products-technologies/transportation-efficiency. (accessed December 15, 2016)

[19] deLaski, Andrew and Joanna Mauer, “Energy-Saving States of America: How Every State Benefits from National Appliance Standards,” ASAP, ACEEE, February 2017. https://appliance-standards.org/sites/default/files/Appliances%20standards%20white%20paper%202%202-14-17.pdf. (accessed Nov 22, 2017)

[20] ENERGY STAR, “ENERGY STAR Overview of 2015 Achievements,” April 8, 2016. <https://www.energystar.gov/sites/default/files/asset/document/ES_OverviewAchievements_040816-508.pdf>. (accessed November 17, 2017)

[21]  Ibid

[22] https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/bioenergy-modelling-IB.pdf

[23] https://www.manomet.org/sites/default/files/publications_and_tools/Manomet_Biomass_Report_Full_June2010.pdf

[24] https://northernforest.org/programs/modern-wood-heat/wood-pellet-greenhouse-gas-emissions-study