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Shumlin celebrates efficiency program, green energy progress

As snowflakes fell, Gov. Peter Shumlin visited the home of a Montpelier couple Monday to tout the Heat Saver Loan program, which helps middle-income homeowners invest in energy efficiency upgrades.

Shumlin – who is serving his final weeks as governor – also highlighted his legacy as the state steps up efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. He told reporters there are 15 times the number of solar panels in Vermont now than when he entered office in 2011 and 22 times the number of wind turbines.

The efficiency program he promoted Monday is the kind of initiative that Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott has supported as well. But on some green energy issues – particularly industrial wind power – Scott’s team continued to make it clear he and his Democratic predecessor diverge.

The big brown house Shumlin visited was built in 1965 and is owned by Gary and Terry Holloway, who live there with their two boys. The couple said they received a loan from the Vermont State Employees Credit Union after an energy audit showed the house was leaking heat.

The average loan from VSECU for home energy projects is $11,400, Shumlin said, and the application form is just one page. The Holloways said their loan was secured quickly, after a one-hour meeting at the bank.

The loans are offered for a host of home projects, including weatherization improvements and the purchase of a wood pellet stove. The Holloways used theirs to insulate with spray foam and purchase an efficient heat pump.

“The house wasn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be,” Terry Holloway said about the energy audit. “But I think we had an 18 percent decrease in air leakage after we got done doing the project, so it’s pretty significant.”

Shumlin said that since 2014, 249 families from 116 towns have used the Heat Saver Loan program to make home improvements. Interest rates range from zero to 4.99 percent.

“There’s plenty of capital,” said VSECU CEO Robert Miller. “What we really need is demand.”

Shumlin touted the loan program as an example of the sort of progressive energy efficiency policy that will help Vermont meet its goal of getting 90 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2050.

A key law in helping meet this goal is Act 56 – a 2015 measure that includes a host of provisions aimed at decreasing dependence on fossil fuels.

As of Jan. 1, the law requires utilities to get 55 percent of their energy from renewable sources, up from the current level of 45 percent.

While energy efficiency has become a bipartisan issue in state and federal politics, the siting of renewable energy projects is more politically fraught.

The proliferation of wind turbines in the Green Mountain State has drawn a number of detractors who say they are bad for the environment and public health.

Wind energy was a hot topic in the gubernatorial election, with Democrat Sue Minter offering much stronger support for wind projects than did Scott.

Scott supports Vermont’s goal of 90 percent renewables and has voiced support for energy efficiency programs and tax credits. But he has said towns should have more control over the siting of wind projects. Scott spokesman Ethan Latour added that the governor-elect supported the siting reforms in Act 174 but said “concerns around industrial wind remain.”

“The governor-elect will not rule out using executive order to clearly express his concerns about ridgeline industrialization,” Latour said Monday. “The governor-elect looks forward to working with the Legislature to further clarify the state’s energy siting regulations so that local communities have more input in all stages of the process.”

Shumlin said he hadn’t had an extensive conversation with Scott about what, if any, changes to the state’s energy policy could be coming.

“All I can do is hope,” Shumlin said. “You know, this has worked for Vermont, it’s working for Vermonters, it’s putting money in their pockets, it’s creating jobs, and it’s making our planet more livable for future generations.”

Shumlin said the green energy industry has created more than 17,000 jobs in the state and that technology advancements have increased performance while decreasing cost.

He also expressed concern that the federal government’s 30 percent solar energy tax credits for households could be in jeopardy once President-elect Donald Trump enters office in January with Congress fully controlled by the GOP.

The Holloways said their next home project will be installing solar panels, and Shumlin urged them and others to try to secure the credits before they are set to expire next year.

“I would say go ahead and rush,” Shumlin said. “Because the Koch brothers” – businessmen who are big donors to the Republican Party – “invested a lot of money in this campaign for good reason. Oil and gas companies want to go back to getting subsidies, and they want to kill the renewable subsidies.”