He recommended she add insulation to the attic and walls and installed some new windows and weather-stripped doors, helping cut her fuel use nearly in half and her electricity costs by 30 percent.
He "made the house livable," said Witherspoon, a 40-year-old mother of two. "He explained to me why the house was so inefficient, and helped me to understand how each improvement would increase the overall comfort and affordability of my home."
The work was performed by a contractor recommended by Efficiency Vermont, a first-of-its-kind energy efficiency utility that helps homeowners reduce their electricity use.
Established in 2000, the utility provides technical assistance, design advice and financial incentives to reduce electrical use in homes, businesses and schools through the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs, energy efficient appliances and motors.
It has been at the center of debate over a climate change bill passed by the Legislature but opposed by Gov. Jim Douglas.
The bill would expand Efficiency Vermont to include home heating fuel conservation, using money from a tax on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to pay for the expansion.
Douglas has signaled he will veto the bill because of the tax
Advocates say what will be lost is a chance for the pioneering utility to be a leader in the fight against global warming.
"We've got a model and we can see the benefits with efficiency with electricity," said Blair Hamilton, director of Efficiency Vermont. "People began to really focus on global warming" and the role of fossil fuels -- oil, gas and kerosene -- in contribution to it, he said.
Efficiency Vermont grew out of a Public Service Board ruling in the 1990s that said energy efficiency should be part of the state's energy policy.
Following the mandate, more than 20 electric utilities around the started offering energy efficiency programs to customers, funded by ratepayers.
But the Legislature decided the program was inefficient. Each utility had to have its own experts to run its energy efficiency programs, while regulators had to review them.
And utilities were only achieving a fraction of the energy savings estimated that they could.
"Studies show repeatedly that we could be meeting 20 or 30 percent of our needs at a lower cost through efficiency than by building power plants or going out on the market," Hamilton said.
The utilities were doing a better-than-average job compared to other states, but they could have done better, he said.
Established with funding from a fee added to customers' electric bills, Efficiency Vermont says it has helped 44 percent of Vermonters reduce energy costs, saving more than 5 percent on the state's energy use through its efficiency investments -- and $207 million.
Recognizing its accomplishments, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University gave it an innovation award in 2003.
The program, one of 1,000 nominated, was judged on its novelty, effectiveness and significance in addressing an important problem of public concern. Four other programs were similarly honored.
"The program really had ventured into uncharted territory to find a new solution that had a substantial and positive impact on the citizens of Vermont," said Kara O'Sullivan, manager for administration for the Innovations in American Government Awards program.
Like other customers, Witherspoon paid for the improvements herself. But she knew where to make them thanks to the specially trained contractor.
"My children and I could barely go upstairs, it was so cold," said Witherspoon. "The house was old, drafty, and desperately needed work. We were basically heating the outside, and we had the largest icicles in the state to prove it."
The utility gets a lot of calls from homeowners who heat with oil. A state weatherization program for low-income Vermonters helps tighten about a thousand homes a year.
But there are 200,000 buildings out there, and over 100,000 are probably heated with oil, Hamilton said.
"What would be great is if we could ramp up over time, to be doing 3,000 or 4,000," he said.
On the Net:
Efficiency Vermont: www.efficiencyvermont.com
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