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Flood-impacted VT households rebuild for climate resilience

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Friday, May 3, 2024   

By Annie Ropeik for Energy News Network.
Broadcast version by Kathryn Carley for Maine News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration


Overnight in early July last year, Vermont solar installer Bill Chidsey got a call that a grocery store he worked with in his village of Hardwick was flooded. He arrived to find feet of water in the Buffalo Mountain Market's utility room, spilling over from the rising Lamoille River in a record-breaking rainstorm.

"The grocery store survived by an inch," Chidsey said. "If it had rained fifteen more minutes, they'd have lost four compressors."

He's now helping the co-op build a net-zero energy system that will use solar power and recycled waste heat from the store's refrigerators. But it's going to be a long project - just one of countless examples Vermont has seen since last year of how sustainable rebuilds in the wake of a flood don't happen quickly.

"I think we're just getting started with this," Chidsey said.

Advocates, utilities and state agencies have seen slow progress and mixed success since July 2023 in trying to replace flood-damaged home and business energy systems with more efficient, cost-effective, low-carbon technology. Now, they hope to redouble these efforts as part of a long-term recovery - both to keep people affected last year from falling through the cracks, and to be more resilient in the next storm.

"We consider that we're now about to start 'phase two,' where we hope to go back and talk about energy systems," said Sue Minter, who leads Capstone Community Action in central Vermont. "In the emergency - with winter and nowhere else to go, and oh, by the way, no contractors available, labor shortage, material shortage, crisis - we couldn't do the transition work, but that doesn't mean we won't."

Lessons from storm Irene

More than a decade ago, Minter was the deputy secretary of Vermont's Agency of Transportation when the 2011 Tropical Storm Irene - comparable in its severity to the 2023 floods - washed out hundreds of miles of roads and bridges across the state.

As the state's Irene Recovery Officer, Minter spent the next two-plus years grappling with federal regulators and pushing through new policies and programs to rebuild "stronger, with resilience in mind," she said. This included allowing easier upsizing of culverts and clearing development out of floodplains.

Many places with these post-Irene resilience upgrades and reforms saw less damage in the July 2023 floods as a result, Minter said. Vermont officials even came to a recent meeting of the Maine Climate Council, after a pair of weather disasters there, to talk about their approach to flood-resilient infrastructure.

"When you know you're in an emergency, and you know everything has been destroyed, you also know it's an opportunity to innovate ... to rebuild differently," Minter said.

Vermont, often called a potential haven for future climate migrants, is nonetheless seeing more frequent and intense rain and floods as one of its top impacts from human-caused climate change. The state also relies heavily on pricey, carbon-intensive heating oil.

After last year's floods, Vermont leaders wanted to seize the moment to help affected residents make future-looking energy and efficiency upgrades on a widespread scale.

"They're ripping out drywall, they're having to update systems - this is the time to make sure that you do it properly," said Efficiency Vermont supply chain engagement manager Steve Casey.

Making emergency rebates accessible

Efficiency Vermont, a statewide energy efficiency utility, created an emergency flood rebate program for affected homeowners and renters, reallocating $10 million in pandemic aid already set aside for low-income weatherization projects.

The new program offered up to $10,000 per household to repair or replace flood-damaged energy systems and other appliances, on top of existing funding for efficient electric heat pump water heaters and electrical panel upgrades. Similar rebates for damaged businesses were just raised to a $16,000 cap.

But uptake on this funding has been slow. As of January, only 155 households had received flood rebates of $5,100 apiece on average, according to state legislative testimony from Efficiency Vermont director Peter Walke.

It's partly because the initial $10 million was "an overshoot to ensure we wouldn't run out of funds," allocated quickly "without knowing what the actual need would be," said spokesperson Matthew Smith.

But people also ran into myriad barriers to using the money quickly.

Some lacked up-front cash to pay for upgrades that would be rebated later. In response, Efficiency Vermont has begun offering a 100% cost-coverage program for the lowest-income clients, where contractors are paid directly by the state. That program had paid out nearly $92,000 to 10 people as of January, per Walke's testimony, with 58 more in the pipeline.

"The households that are still in significant need at this stage were vulnerable households to begin with," Casey said. "We do have this repeating situation where flood events kind of just exacerbate some vulnerabilities for certain households."

'Life and safety first'

The timing of the 2023 floods was another complicating factor. The upcoming heating season loomed in the months after the disaster, and limited housing stock meant people couldn't relocate from damaged homes, unlike after Tropical Storm Irene, said Sue Minter.

"In 2023, July, people had to get into their homes as quickly as possible," she said. "You always have to have life and safety first."

The repairs and retrofits needed most urgently were not simple. Many people's water and space heating systems and electrical panels were in basements, "the first place to flood," said Casey.

Parts of Vermont are trying to change this norm - Waterbury, for example, requires basements to be above flood elevation in new or substantially improved home construction, among other flood protections.

Chidsey, the solar installer in Hardwick, said he and his electrician have tried to shift to putting electrical panels on the outside of homes, with any indoor subpanels out of the basement. Ideally, he said, the cellar becomes "just a hole in the ground that holds up the house, because water comes in often now."

But moving HVAC infrastructure out of a vulnerable basement, whether to meet a local requirement or voluntarily, isn't easy, especially after major damage, Casey said. People may not have a ready space for that equipment on the first floor, or may need mold remediation before taking on serious flood-proofing.

It means that the advocates working to facilitate upgrades have had to take a long view.

'The promise that we'll be back'

Last fall, Efficiency Vermont, Capstone, the state's utilities and a range of other partners stood up a new system of Vermont Energy Recovery Teams, who went into damaged homes to help people plan and prioritize repairs before winter, including coordinating holistically across contractors and funding sources.

Some homes were able to switch straight to heat pumps as a cheaper, cleaner method of water and space heating, officials said. But for many, a replacement oil or gas system was the simplest short-term option.

Efficiency Vermont does not normally offer incentives for installing fossil fuel systems, but made exceptions for high-efficiency Energy Star-rated models as part of its flood recovery rebate program.

"In every case, we looked for something that was more efficient than what they had before," said Vermont Gas energy innovation director Richard Donnelly, who was part of many recovery team home visits.

In each of those visits, the teams would take note of residents' long-term needs and goals for decarbonization, resilience, comfort and lower energy burdens, with an emphasis on heat pumps.

"We left off with sort of the promise that we'll be back," said Vermont Gas CEO Neale Lunderville - that "there's money available for some of these technologies, that we can help you with the same process."

The recovery teams are now under the umbrella of GreenSavingSmart, a pilot energy and financial coaching program for low-income residents run by the Vermont Community Action Partnership. They'll soon begin revisiting last fall's clients to facilitate a new round of resilient improvements.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's a hopeful pathway to allow these households to have - once they're fully made whole and recovered from all of this - a lower energy burden and cost burden than the situation they were in to begin with," said Steve Spatz, an account manager on the supply chain team at Efficiency Vermont. "It really is an opportunity to ... upgrade the conditions for the household."


Annie Ropeik wrote this article for Energy News Network.


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