By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
A new report from Efficiency Vermont concludes that, while Vermonters have been paying relatively steady percentages of their income on energy over the last several years, programs designed to lower energy burdens haven’t reached many people who need them most.
Authors of the 2023 Vermont Energy Burden Report picked up from where a 2019 report left off and used data through 2021. They relied on both town-level data and census block data to paint a picture of energy usage in the state, illustrating who pays more and less for electricity, transportation and home heating, compared to income.
The report found that energy burdens in the state — the percentage of income spent on energy — have “remained relatively constant over the last decade,” with households spending about 11% of their income on energy costs.
The data has shown for years that some Vermonters are paying higher percentages of their incomes on energy, and the locations where those energy burdens exist haven’t changed significantly.
Still, as of 2021, programs designed to lower energy costs through weatherization or the installation of more energy-efficient appliances had not yet reached many who needed the most help, the report found.
Nationally, many energy burden calculations include electricity and home heating, but not transportation. Using those numbers, the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy considers a 6% energy burden “high.”
“When transportation costs are removed from our calculation, the average electric and thermal burden for Vermont is 5%, indicating that there are many households in our state with high energy burden,” the report states.
On average, Vermonters spend $7,071 on energy each year, according to the report, with transportation being the highest cost category. While this number has increased since 2019, income has changed significantly across the state in recent years, leaving the average energy burden relatively constant.
Statewide median household income increased 26% between 2017 and 2021, from about $57,500 to over $72,000, the report states. Meanwhile, 37 towns saw significant declines in median incomes.
Towns with energy burdens that exceed 15% — including transportation costs — include Montgomery, Charleston, East Haven, Lowell, Concord, Brighton, Castleton, Dover and Bloomfield.
In the past, using town-level data has drawn Efficiency Vermont toward “a lot of small rural communities — which is important,” said Kelly Lucci, an author of the report and director of strategy and partnerships for Efficiency Vermont. “That’s absolutely a place where we want to be embedding some focus.” But that also means that, in some communities, the data was creating “an average assumption about burden… You are just automatically losing an awful lot of nuance and granularity within those larger communities that really puts them at a disadvantage,” she said.
Generally, towns and regions with high energy burdens did not use energy and cost savings programs as much as towns and regions with low energy burdens.
Those programs “may not yet be reaching the customers who could most benefit from energy and cost savings,” the report said.
For example, the report shows high energy burdens on the eastern side of the state and in the Northeast Kingdom. On the western side of the state, in Addison and Rutland counties, where median incomes are higher, residents have installed cold climate heat pumps at a much higher rate.
While more than 20% of homes in some Champlain Valley towns have installed heat pumps, installations “appear to be much lower in the Northeast Kingdom and high-burden communities,” the report states.
Because the report’s data stops at 2021, it does not reflect the impact of policies that have been adopted in recent years, Lucci said. Statewide, she also saw an increase in electric usage, which could indicate wider adoption of electric vehicles and cold climate heat pumps.
Still, she said, the disparities show “a huge opportunity for the state to double down in terms of a focus on equity and access, and really jumpstart even stronger progress on our climate goals, because we’ll be connecting those technologies with people who could stand the most to benefit from them.”
To get there, Lucci suggests a shift in the state’s approach to energy savings.
“Efficiency Vermont is a utility, right?” she said. “We have pretty aggressive savings targets that we’re asked to meet, all in service to Vermont ratepayers, and reducing the cost of operating the electric grid and working effectively with our distribution utility partners. And that’s all really important.”
But if the state focuses only on projects with the most energy savings, she said, it could miss a household that needs a bigger subsidy to complete a project.
For example, the report states, a project to install pipe insulation for a large business customer might cost $10 per unit of energy saved. Meanwhile, helping a homeowner with a moderate income complete a home weatherization project could cost more than $300 per unit of energy saved.
“However, the relative impact of energy savings — and their attendant cost reduction — may be more significant in relieving energy burden for the customer whose home has been weatherized, or for the corner store that upgrades its refrigeration, than for a large business,” the report states.
Zoomed out, energy burden appears lowest in Chittenden County and highest in the Northeast Kingdom. But census data complicates that picture, showing that smaller sections of Burlington, for example, or Barre, have some of the highest energy burdens in the state.
Lucci said Efficiency Vermont uses the report to guide its outreach efforts and aim for wider adoption of programs it offers, such as home weatherization.
“A report like this can help you understand where you need to be on the ground and in conversation with people to understand what their needs are, to make sure they’re aware of programs that already exist,” Lucci said, “and then be prepared to listen to feedback and and try to incorporate that into improving our efforts moving forward.”