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Vermont’s Energy Efficiency Edge

A statewide utility that uses ratepayer funding to deliver energy efficiency services to commercial, institution, and residential customers, also encourages institutions to launch green revolving funds.

By Karla Hignite

In 1999, the Vermont State Legislature created a statewide energy efficiency utility—Efficiency Vermont—using ratepayer funding to deliver energy efficiency services to commercial, institution, and residential customers. Prior to this, several dozen electric companies across the state independently delivered efficiency services, though not in a consistent manner, according to Richard Donnelly, an Efficiency Vermont strategic planning manager for institution ratepayers. The utility, a program of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (www.veic.org), serves the entire state, with the exception of Burlington Electric Department, which has long-established ties to providing efficiency services to its area customers, notes Donnelly.

"We essentially grew from an opportunity to create a focused approach to energy efficiency that would benefit the state and ratepayers alike, offering services targeted to electric savings and deferred electric infrastructure," notes Donnelly. His portfolio includes working directly with Vermont's colleges and universities, and through his role, Donnelly is in regular communication with a network of Vermont campus sustainability coordinators. Mutual connections at the University of Vermont brought together Donnelly and Sustainability Endowments Institute (SEI) Executive Director Mark Orlowski, and in 2010 the two began discussing how they might collaborate to encourage greater acceleration of energy efficiency funding across Vermont's higher education sector.

Reframing the Conversation

The idea emerged for a high-level, peer-to-peer symposium of institution presidents and chief business officers as a means to encourage a critical mass of leadership in this arena, notes Donnelly. Invitations were sent to all college and university presidents across the state, some whose institutions had already joined SEI's Billion Dollar Green Challenge (www.greenbillion.org), committing their institutions to establishing a revolving fund to perpetually invest in campus energy efficiency.

The October 2011 event centered on helping institution leaders understand the role that a green revolving fund can play in reducing operating and utility costs and improving infrastructure, explaining how these funds can address barriers to making energy efficiency investments, and providing examples of types of revolving funds and ways to establish them and source capital.

"In deciding how to frame the conversation, we created a history of energy projects implemented by each institution over the course of the past 10 years and framed those as a portfolio of investments to show what each institution had gained from the projects in terms of returns on investment," says Donnelly. "We also showed how opportunities under development could provide sound investment benefits going forward." In fact, a primary goal of the symposium was to reframe the conversation surrounding energy efficiency so that institution leaders begin to consider these projects as investments with recurring ROI rather than as expenses, notes Donnelly.

From that event came additional commitments to launch revolving funds to finance campus energy efficiency. Donnelly also laid important groundwork for reaching out to institutions with tactical assistance on next steps, including how to get projects developed and approved—a primary hurdle for many institutions, notes Donnelly. While the symposium, and the work of Efficiency Vermont, are not the only factors contributing to the high rate of revolving fund participation among Vermont's colleges and universities, Donnelly believes the concerted effort to help leadership rethink energy efficiency as not only economically viable, but also financially beneficial, has certainly helped move the energy efficiency needle in one of the smallest states in the nation.

Of Vermont's 22 higher education institutions, more than half of the campuses have green revolving funds, notes Donnelly. SEI challenge participants hailing from the state include Green Mountain College, Middlebury College, University of Vermont, Vermont State Colleges (five colleges), Vermont Law School, Champlain College, and the State of Vermont. Combined, these participants have committed nearly $20 million toward ongoing energy efficiency investment.

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.


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