Since 1972, The Publyk House restaurant has been a staple of the Bennington, Vermont community. The restaurant serves over 70,000 people per year out of a converted horse barn. Given Vermont’s harsh winters, the draftiness expected from a horse barn poses issues for a business intending to efficiently keep its workers and patrons warm. Additionally, a 49-year old restaurant isn’t likely to have the most updated and energy efficient lighting and ventilation systems. The business found itself paying a lot — what owners Steven and Lauren Bryant later realized was too much — for energy.
The Bryants began looking into investing in energy efficiency upgrades.
“[We] wanted to do good things for the business, good things for the environment, and try to be a good role model for the rest of the world too,” Steven Bryant says.
As Publyk House was growing its business, Bryant felt that saving money on energy costs would have the most impact if the restaurant could simultaneously cut its carbon footprint. Fortunately, Vermont has Efficiency Vermont, an organization whose mission is to do just that.
Since 2000, Efficiency Vermont has been working to “create energy savings as a public resource,” notes public relations manager Jeff Buell. Efficiency Vermont is the state’s publicly funded energy efficiency utility, and the first energy efficiency utility in America. As an energy efficiency utility, Efficiency Vermont’s goal is to encourage Vermonters to save energy. This saved energy is effectively treated as its own energy resource, similar to the electricity produced by conventional electric utilities. This work is funded by a 4.5 percent surcharge that appears on Vermonters’ energy bills.
In 2015, Efficiency Vermont began a Deep Energy Retrofit program aimed at providing businesses with at least 50 percent annual energy savings within two years of completed retrofits. According to Nicole Carpenter, Efficiency Vermont’s Associate Director of Engineering, the program’s viability and accessibility come from keeping businesses operating during renovations.
“A lot of deep retrofits happen as a gut rehab [by] changing owners when the building is vacant and unoccupied,” she explains. “Our [project] was like, ‘Well, can you actually do that while the business is in operation.’”
The Deep Retrofit program was exactly what the Publyk House needed, so the Bryants applied in 2016. With guidance from Efficiency Vermont, The Publyk House installed insulation, high efficiency propane furnaces, LED lighting, and high efficiency evaporating motor fans inside the walk-in refrigerators. According to Bryant, all of these upgrades were added “in a common sense way” making the process “not all that intrusive.”
In the commercial sector, retrofits have to maintain comforts that aren’t as important for residential retrofits. While a homeowner can afford to forfeit heating (or cooling) while they’re away at work, businesses often have constant energy needs throughout the day. For example, The Publyk House has to keep its furnaces on all day. This constant energy use might convince some people that even deep retrofits would have significant difficulty in cutting energy costs. Efficiency Vermont’s goal to save The Publyk House 50 percent on energy was still successful, however.
Bryant recalls that none of these upgrades or savings would have been possible without Efficiency Vermont.
“Without [Efficiency Vermont], we didn’t really have the expertise to figure this out,” he explains. “[We] would not have been making the investments that we did.”
Businesses really value Efficiency Vermont’s hands-on, tailored approach for each participant in its Deep Retrofit program, ensuring that the upgrades are installed smoothly. It requires businesses to fill out an application to make certain that they are ready to commit to the retrofit process. The process involves multiple steps, and could involve multiple construction and financial partners (like the Bank of Bennington for the Publyk House).
“We’re happy to help [businesses], but we want to make sure that they want to do this,” Carpenter says. “[The application] is a little one pager, asking why do you want to save 50 percent on energy savings, how are you going to go about it, what contractor, service providers, and vendors are you going to work with, and how do you plan to fund it?”
Although the application isn’t lengthy, its level of detail means that businesses interested in this program usually need an enthusiastic employee or owner (like the Bryants) who really pushes the retrofits. “Energy Champions,” as Carpenter dubs them, are those people incredibly invested in making their businesses more energy efficient. Because many of the buildings enrolled in Efficiency Vermont’s deep retrofit program are older, lacking newer efficiency measures, the “Energy Champions” could have many reasons for building improvements.
“[Reasons] ranged, but in general they were really proud of the business that they had and they wanted their building to be better,” Carpenter recalls.
She explained that businesses upgrade for public relations, sustainability, community engagement, or economic reasons. Bryant confirms Carpenter’s sentiment acknowledging that the Publyk House retrofits were meant to save money, but also to “be good to the climate” and the community. Since there isn’t one single reason that businesses enroll in the program, the participants include office buildings, libraries, churches, daycare centers, grocery stores, and restaurants.
For many businesses in the program, retrofits can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, but they effectively pay for themselves in energy savings. For example, not only did The Publyk House hit the 50 percent annual savings threshold (saving $12,250 annually), the comforts from the enhanced heating and insulation increased its business by 42 percent since the retrofit was completed in 2019. Additionally, Efficiency Vermont provides bonus funding to successful projects, like The Publyk House, that manage to cut energy consumption in half. For every kilowatt-hour of energy saved, a business receives 24 cents. In the case of The Publyk House, that’s over $12,000 per year.
Successes like that of the Publyk House are common in Efficiency Vermont’s Deep Retrofit program. Since the program started, it’s had 20 participants – 10 of whom have already halved their energy consumption. In fact, 13 of Efficiency Vermont’s initial business partners have a combined annual savings of $300,000.
The successes and relatively immediate payback of the work has prompted the growth of other efficiency utilities, or similar programs embedded in ordinary utilities. Buell highlights that since Efficiency Vermont was developed, programs like Mass Save, Energy Trust of Oregon, and Efficiency Maine have popped up.
“The whole idea of having a statewide efficiency program that is treated as a resource on par with generation is pretty well established now,” he says. “A lot of the programs really started to show up with different structures, but with the same basic goal.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a Next City miniseries on local Green New Deal initiatives that can be scaled up. This series is generously supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism.
Chad Small is a New York City based freelance reporter who principally covers community-led and policy-driven solutions to the climate crisis, as well as the economic, social, and public health effects of Environmental Racism. His work has appeared in Gothamist, Blavity: Politics, Reasons To Be Cheerful, and other publications. He is also a former New Economies Reporting Project‘s Finance Solutions Fellows with the New Economy Coalition.