Solutions Library

Weatherize Upper Valley

Lowering Energy Costs

Buy heating fuel in an island community, and you might pay a dollar more per gallon than mainland customers. Electricity prices are similarly high; islands connected to the grid with submarine cables pay high prices due to periodic cable replacements and on-island distribution and maintenance costs. Islands without a cable are often powered by diesel generators, expensive both to fuel and maintain. These same challenges are faced by rural communities in many remote places around North America and beyond. Islanders and others serviced by a small electric co-op face another concern. With only a few hundred (or fewer) customers, set costs like energy generation or transmission, distribution, and maintenance are shared by a small number of consumers. If a large building were suddenly to drop off the grid (which could happen if people pursue individual solutions, like roof-top solar, without community-wide coordination), other users would see an increase in their bills.

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The Upper Valley region is a rural area situated in between the major population centers of Concord, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont. Vital Communities, a community nonprofit based in White River Junction, Vermont, realized that the uptake of energy efficiency in the region was slowed by a set of barriers that were distinct from those in more populated areas of the state.

To address this, Vital Communities started a program called Weatherize Upper Valley.

 

CHALLENGES ADDRESSED BY WEATHERIZE UPPER VALLEY

Workforce availability
There were few contractors certified to work with the state’s Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program operating in the region, and contractors from other areas were not usually advertising in the Upper Valley.

Limited awareness
Even if people were aware of the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program, some homeowners did not think they would qualify because their house was built recently; and therefore, they believed it was already energy efficient. Others thought their home was too old to be worth weatherizing, and some people didn’t think they could afford it.

Furthermore, unlike other home improvements, weatherization isn’t visible from a home’s exterior. If a homeowner builds a new fence or installs solar panels on their roof, their neighbors are more likely to see that and might be inspired to do the same. Insulation and other weatherization procedures are not obvious from the outside and don’t necessarily spark the same kinds of conversations among neighbors.

Skepticism of existing resources
Like many people, residents of rural areas can be hesitant to allow contractors they don’t know perform work on their homes. Many of the contractors involved were from several hours away, so trust was a potential barrier. Some residents of the Upper Valley were also skeptical of programs run by their local electric utility, were reluctant to accept “handouts,” or were hesitant to take on debt to make energy upgrades with uncertain savings.

 

HOW IT WORKS

Weatherize Upper Valley addresses common barriers to rural energy efficiency by taking a regional approach. Instead of addressing weatherization home by home, the program promotes a regional approach to energy efficiency and creates economies of scale in places where they wouldn’t otherwise exist.

The design and implementation of Weatherize Upper Valley addresses the absence of marketing by contractors and the limited awareness by using the local volunteers and other trusted local sources of information. Vital Communities coordinates with local volunteers, connecting them with qualified contractors and empowering them to lead outreach efforts in their communities.

IMPLEMENTATION

Coordinating with contractors and local volunteers
Vital Communities connects contractors and local volunteers to coordinate outreach and communication with participants in the program. Contractors apply to participate in the program through an open application process. The program provides free marketing and lead generation to the contractors in return for their willingness to serve customers in a new location and offer consistent pricing and discounted energy audits.

The organization recruits teams of local volunteers (e.g., energy committees, municipal leaders) through town meetings and discussions about community needs. Local volunteers spearhead outreach to their neighbors through grassroots marketing including lawn signs, banners, advertising in local papers, and tabling in community common areas like the town transfer station.

Through regular calls with the volunteer teams and participating contractors, they help ensure that work is progressing in a timely way and resolve any issues that may arise. Vital Communities also found that when marketing comes from a trusted source, neighbors are more willing to participate, and that clear and consistent communication between volunteers and contractors is also key to the success of the program.

Leveraging available resources
Weatherize Upper Valley makes use of the incentives available through the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR programs in Vermont and New Hampshire to lower to cost of efficiency upgrades. Contractors selected to participate in Weatherize are registered to participate in these rebate programs, and they certified in building science and weatherization principles.

Aggregating demand
Aggregating demand in a particular time frame and geography was ideal for the contractors.

In Northern New England, and specifically in my little corner of Vermont and New Hampshire, the rural efficiency gap is a reflection of what makes our communities so unique. These are small towns. They’re self-reliant towns. They are wary of slick programs swooping in from the state or federal level. And they don’t have immediate access to the programs and the contractors and the resources that their neighbors in the more urban settings have.

So, if we’re going to achieve our energy goals in our rural communities and help these communities achieve their goals of self-reliance, we’ve got to take a small-town approach. It’s neighbor-to-neighbor. It’s a process of building trust. It’s helping the contractors and the program leaders become savvy in how to earn the trust of small communities. And once we do that, I believe that we can close the rural efficiency gap, I think energy efficiency and demand for energy efficiency can spread like wild fire across northern rural New England.

SARAH BROCK
ENERGY PROGRAM MANAGER
WEATHERIZE UPPER VALLEY

 

 

IMPACTS AND OUTCOMES

  • The impacts of the Weatherize Upper Valley program are impressive. In the first year of the program, pilot Weatherize campaigns in 14 Vermont towns resulted in 100 weatherization projects in just six months, an increase of 40% above their historic annual average.
  • Weatherize Upper Valley Initial Results :
    • Two years (2017 and 2018)
    • 25 towns
    • 84 volunteers
    • 468 home visits with partner contractors
    • 206 homes weatherized directly through the program
    • Dozens more weatherized in neighboring towns or in later months inspired by the efforts of Weatherize Upper Valley.
  • Vital Communities is hosting another round of campaigns in the Upper Valley for the Winter of 2018-19.
  • Communities in New Hampshire’s North Country are launching Weatherize campaigns on their own with coaching and resources from Vital Communities.
  • A Weatherize Toolkit is in development for 2019 to help more communities replicate the success of this program.
  • Vital Communities is also building on the success of Weatherize to help new home buyers prioritize weatherization within their first year of home ownership through the Upper Valley Green Real Estate Network.

 

RESOURCES

 

Originally Published November 2018

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