For some, installing renewable energy systems in their homes is still out of reach financially. For years, the sustainable community has been grappling with with how make these systems more equitable and more available to lower income renters and homeowners. Installing solar panels and heat pumps can require significant upfront investment and for many, raising this amount of capital isn’t always possible. However, Vermont has been hard at work to ensure renewable energy and sustainable living practices are more accessible and more equitable.
One example is a small community in Watham, Vermont. Several community partners including Addison County Community Trust (ACCT), Cathedral Square Corporation (CSC), Green Mountain Power, sonnenBatterie, Vermod and others helped create Vermont’s first net zero affordable housing development.
Executive Director of Addison County Community Trust Elise Shanbacker said that about half of all Addison County renters put at least 30 percent of their income to rent and utility costs (AddisonTrust.org). Seeking to reduce this financial burden and hoping to bring greater equity to the realm of sustainable living, this new neighborhood allows low-income renters to power their homes entirely off the grid through a variety of cutting-edge technologies. The homes were built by VERMOD, the Wilder, VT company that builds affordable, energy efficient homes. The homes have solar roof arrays, heat pumps, battery systems, and efficient ventilation systems.
Green Mountain Power helped play a role in the overall project by turning these homes into independent power systems that can help decrease strain on the electrical grid (NYTimes.com). Homes are not permanently disconnected from the central power grid but instead go offline during peak demand periods, using solar panels or battery storage for electricity.
The homes come with sonnenBatterie systems which work with the rooftop solar arrays to store excess energy that is generated. Green Mountain Power is then able to reduce peak demand but having McKnight residents switch to stored battery power during those peak hours, lowering costs for both customers and the power company.
Several other utility assistance programs are available to low-income Vermonters including:
- Low Income Rate: This is a discounted rate offered through the Vermont Agency of Human Services Department for Children and Families (DCF) Energy Assistance Program
- Fuel Assistance: This helps pay for a portion of winter heating costs provided through DCF.
- WARMTH program: The program offers emergency heating assistance for Vermonters. Funds come from the general public and Green Mountain Power matches each dollar raised. The assistance is distributed through local Community Action Agencies.
- Vermont Weatherization Program: This weatherization program helps residents improve energy efficiency in their home or rental.
McKnight Lane is an excellent example of building equity and renewable technologies into low-income housing developments. The visionary work of the community leaders who helped support this project will continue to be adopted by other towns across Vermont and the nation. McKnight Lane serves as an inspirational story of what is possible.