Welch: Energy efficiency 'enormously important'

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BRATTLEBORO -- In Washington's bitterly partisan political environment, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch says conserving energy might be a common cause.

"The one area in Washington where there is some promise ... is really in energy efficiency," Welch, D-Vt., declared during a stop in Brattleboro Monday. "It's the one area where I'm finding that I can get real success and cooperation with some of my Republican colleagues who don't believe in climate change, but they do believe in saving money."

But after hearing concerns from a group of local contractors and energy experts, Welch also acknowledged that the costs associated with improving energy efficiency are a big obstacle -- especially in a stagnant economy.

"It is hard," he said. "But I just think that's the reality you've got to deal with."

Vermont's lone House member spoke Monday morning at BuildingGreen Inc., housed in one of the former Estey Organ buildings on Birge Street. He opened by remarking on a New York Times article outlining the effects of climate change.

"It's not as though we can flip the switch and have it stopped. All the mechanisms that are in place that are causing this are very powerful," Welch said. "The only way we're going to avert catastrophe ... is acting aggressively, starting yesterday.

"I'm preaching to the choir, but it's a reminder of how incredibly urgent the situation is," he said.

But in Congress, Welch said, "We've got a lot of climate (change) deniers -- they literally don't think it's a big deal."

That's why Welch sees reason for some optimism in a bill that passed the House in early March. The Energy Efficiency Improvement Act, authored by Welch, sets forth several initiatives including:

-- Establishes energy-efficiency best practices for commercial tenants renting space in commercial buildings and creates a new "tenant star" certification program.

-- Requires federal agencies to implement strategies to increase the efficiency of federally operated data centers.

-- Removes a regulatory barrier to manufacturing large-scale water heaters, which act as residential energy-storage devices and allow utilities to curb energy demand during peak hours.

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-- Establishes a benchmarking and disclosure process for energy consumed in federally leased buildings.

"I think we've got a good shot at getting it through the Senate," Welch said.

Additionally, the congressman commented on a bill designed to encourage energy-efficient retrofitting of federal buildings. He also mentioned legislation "which would provide some financial incentive for homeowners to put some of their own money into the retrofitting of their homes."

"The benefits of approaching this aggressively -- really aggressively -- are the jobs it creates," Welch said, adding that "95 percent of the materials that are used for energy efficiency measures like retrofitting and weatherization are manufactured in this country."

"So you've got the labor and the manufacturing jobs. And of course, there's a payback -- people save money," he said.

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That's not to mention the environmental benefits of cutting back energy consumption and reducing a building's carbon footprint, Welch added.

Alex Wilson, who founded BuildingGreen, said he sees another potential benefit: Energy efficiency can support "resiliency," the ability of a building and its occupants to weather short- and long-term disturbances related to climate change.

"It's an area that, I think, should be talked about a lot more," said Wilson, noting that he had spun off the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute to address the issue.

"It seems that, with climate change, we're going to see more events that cause extended power outages over large areas," Wilson told Welch. "And creating really energy-efficient homes is one way to ensure that the people in those homes will remain safe."

But those who attended Monday's roundtable discussion with the congressman said promoting energy efficiency remains, in several respects, a difficult job. They say many -- from students to working contractors -- don't understand the fundamental science of energy conservation.

"There's a lot more that can be done in terms of educating the community," said Peter Yost of BuildingGreen.

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A lack of clear information sometimes can lead to confusion when residents seek to buy a home or to make their current home more energy-efficient. When weighing competing proposals and varying costs, "you've got homeowners trying to figure out who to listen to," said Bruce Whitney, outreach coordinator for NeighborWorks HEAT Squad.

Quantifying the value of energy efficiency -- and determining how such improvements affect a property's overall value -- also remains a challenge.

Chuck Clerici of Efficiency Vermont noted that all vehicles must have a fuel-efficiency rating, "yet, we have no such requirement for homes."

Tad Montgomery, who runs Home Energy Advocates in Brattleboro, spoke about an energy-efficiency meeting he had with real-estate agents.

"Good people -- all very concerned about climate change," Montgomery recalled.

But "they're deeply concerned about anything that would slow down a sale. That's their bottom line," Montgomery added. "I don't have an answer -- it's a big stumbling block."

Welch said the biggest stumbling block for many might be the fact that "expenses are up, incomes are flat." The congressman acknowledged that, when considering an energy audit for his own home, he initially resisted.

"It's just hard to write a check," he said.

Nonetheless, he offered words of encouragement to the roundtable's attendees.

"This is enormously important," he said. "Vermont has a significant role to play where, on a practical level, we're finding ways to make a difference in our community through a focus on energy efficiency."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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