The days are getting shorter, we've had a few cold snaps and gardens are winding down. Even for Burlington residents who stubbornly wait until October 1 to fire up the furnace, those heating bills will arrive eventually. To take the sting out of a waning summer, imagine living in a more comfortable home this winter and enjoying lower heat, hot water and electric costs.
That's the kind of dreaming the Burlington Electric Department and Vermont Gas are turning into reality for many residents. Through the utilities' shared energyChamp program, Burlington renters and homeowners can learn how their energy use compares to that of other residents, receive energy-saving rebates, get help on strategic home improvements and assist the city in reaching its net-zero energy goal.
"We have folks who are really focused on reducing the bill," said Chris Burns, BED's director of energy services. "We have a lot of folks who are just thinking about their climate footprint. We have folks that are having comfort issues — part of the house isn't working right, or they have a bathroom that molds up all the time because it doesn't have proper ventilation. There are all kinds of issues as to why people come to us, and we're here!"
Any BED customer with internet access can participate in energyChamp through energychamp.org. The portal first asks whether you own or rent an apartment, house or condo. It then asks your location ID (listed on the BED bill) and your source for heat and hot water. Graphs show whether you're an energy "rookie," "contender" or "champ" based on how your most recent year of energy usage compares to that of other Burlington residents with the same home configuration.
Most importantly, energyChamp offers rebates and savings options on efficiency improvements tailored to your profile.
For example, this reporter — who owns a recently upgraded, single-family home in the New North End and is a natural gas contender and electricity champ — was encouraged to consider $3 to $25 rebates on LED light bulbs and fixtures, $40 to $75 rebates for a refrigerator upgrade, and a $500 rebate for switching from an electric to a natural gas hot water heater. In a rookie's home that needs energy upgrades, those rebates could be much higher.
"In our experience, less efficient houses have better potential for realizing significant savings," wrote VG energy services manager Brian Gray in an email. "A 20 percent savings in a really inefficient house ... can represent a significant amount of energy and money."
Houses in every part of Burlington can benefit from energy improvements, but they typically benefit in different ways. Those built around the turn of the 20th century, for example, tend to be drafty because their wall cavities are open from basement to attic — called balloon framing — and they may have inefficient coal- or oil-burning heating equipment, wrote Gray. Houses built closer to the World War II years typically have less-drafty platform framing, but their mid-efficiency, oil-fired heating equipment becomes less efficient over time, he noted. Improvements can include adding insulation, sealing air leaks, or installing new windows or furnaces.
BED and VG have been collaborating informally for more than a decade to help Burlington residents and businesses become more energy efficient, said Burns. To formalize some of those efforts, they launched the Energy Champ Challenge in June 2015. It provided financial incentives for upgrades to landlords whose tenants paid for natural gas heat.
For years, VG had offered a 50 percent financial incentive to encourage these landlords to make energy improvements, said Burns. Without such incentives, he clarified, they were not inclined to work with either utility on energy efficiency. "The Energy Champ Challenge idea was, let's bump that up to 75 percent and see what happens. Vermont Gas was only able to do that from a budgetary standpoint for a year," Burns added. "It was very popular."
The challenge met and exceeded its goals, according to a January 2017 BED press release. Although BED and VG aimed to complete approximately 50 energy audits and improve 25 buildings, they completed 163 audits that informed energy upgrades on 63 buildings. The utilities calculate that Burlington landlords and tenants will save more than $647,000 collectively over the lifetime of those efficiency improvements.
These results inspired energyChamp, designed to serve all Queen City renters and single-family homeowners.
"Burlington was the first city in the country to create a combined thermal-electric portal for customers," said BED general manager Neale Lunderville, referring to the energyChamp website.
"As a municipal electric department working with an investor-owned natural gas utility, I'm not sure there's another like it out there," said Burns. "They frankly tend to compete for market share."
So what motivates this collaboration? Two words: climate change. Since the Trump administration's withdrawal from the December 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, cities, businesses and other organizations have pledged to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to achieve the United States' commitment. Burlington is among them and was the first city in the nation to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable generation, according to a February 2015 BED press release.
The city's next goal is to become net zero, meaning that it would generate as much energy as it consumes in electricity, heat and transportation. For BED and VG, collaborating to help residents improve energy efficiency serves that goal and makes good business sense.
"For example," said Burns, "Vermont Gas goes in and does a bang-up job weatherizing a home, and we can see a reduction in the electric bill because that means the humidifier doesn't have to run as much because the basement isn't leaking."
Burlington is also one of 17 U.S. cities to join 2030 Districts, a nonprofit network helping cities worldwide mitigate and adapt to climate change.
"The Burlington 2030 District is focused on helping commercial property owners achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption in our buildings," wrote Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger in an email. "Importantly, it is a collaborative effort that demonstrates a private-sector commitment to moving our city toward our climate and energy goals."
"Resiliency is part of what we're thinking about," Burns stressed, "whether that's battery storage or some other things. If the climate continues to get less predictable and the weather gets more severe, we're all going to have to think about it."
Burns adds that there's no end in sight for energyChamp. "We hope it's bedrock," he said.
Burlington residents may choose to participate at any time, but remember: That winter weather is coming soon.