Housing Complex

Sustainable Energy Utility Off to a Somewhat Rocky Start

What if someone gave you $6.5 million and told you to spend it wisely in six months? Okay, it's not that simple. What if you also had to use it to create 100 jobs, invest in low-income communities, and foster D.C.'s alternative energy industries, on track to lowering the District's energy use by 1 percent every year?

That's been the task of D.C.'s new Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), which the D.C. Council finally approved back in March after authorizing it through legislation passed three years earlier. Led by the well-regarded Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, the new quasi-independent agency is supposed to do everything that Pepco had long failed to accomplish, using funds generated by a surcharge on your electric bill.

About four months in existence, the body is cruising along, but not without some bumps in the road. Their first setback: the death of VEIC's visionary founder, Blair Hamilton, which took some of the spring out of the company's step. They couldn't lose focus, though, because making good use of $6.5 million—while designing programs to soak up an even larger round of funding next year—is no easy feat.

So much so, in fact, that solar energy advocates worried in the beginning of July that the SEU wouldn't be able to make it. A newly-formed coalition of solar cooperatives was miffed that the SEU couldn't agree to just help fund more solar installations on houses, or larger projects like Ward 8's THEARC, which wouldn't need a lot of program design, considering there's already a long line for rebates.

Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop leader Anya Schoolman was still annoyed when I spoke with her today, soon after she'd noticed advertisements for the SEU on city buses, which seemed like deja vu after Pepco's use of city funds for empty self-promotion. "It has been frustrating not knowing how decisions are made and what activities they will focus on," she says. "We hope they will make a serious long term commitment to solar, but so far, we haven't heard a thing except that they are planning a study" of the market for solar in D.C., which the coops feel they know fairly well already.

The guy now in charge of the SEU, VEIC's Scott Johnstone, says the money will get spent, and spent well. Right now, that will require finding 4,000 multifamily units, 750 small businesses, and 200 single family homes that want energy efficiency retrofits—which means handing out lots and lots of compact fluorescent lightbulbs and low-flow shower heads. That may leave some money left over for the Renewable Energy Incentive Program, which the SEU was due to take over at the end of 2012 anyway.

"Clearly there's some frustration that things aren't moving fast enough to meet the demand that they've put in front of the city," Johnstone says, of the solar coops. "If we decided to do something soon, it would have to be building on the current REIP program, because frankly, September 30th is coming up pretty soon."

  • DC Guy

    And this is being funded by quasi-public monies because, why?

  • DC native

    And a group from Vermont is running something in an urban area like DC with unique needs, why?

  • DC Guy

    I came back to ask that very question after thinking about it last night. What the heck. The city allocates millions of dollars to subsidize what should be a private sector initiative (PEPCO anyone?) and awards the contract to an outfit from Vermont?

    I can think of 20 people and companies off the top of my head that would be qualified to oversee, manage and execute what this seems to be about. Is this a Fenty crony thing? Who made this decision?

  • Rayful Edmond

    Many moons ago, DDOE solicited bids from qualified contractors to manage the start-up of the DC SEU. VEIC is by far the most sophisticated and well-respected energy-efficiency program delivery manager in the field. VEIC plans to pass the baton on once local employees are hired to take over the program. The VEIC folks will return back to their snowy state once the program can sustain itself. Solar advocates/whiny homeowners need to settle down and wait until FY12 when the SEU budget is replenished.

  • Research, Anyone?

    The article doesn't go into it, but the DC SEU does actually partner with a bunch of local organizations. I found that out less than 20 seconds after googling it.

    You should see what VEIC seems to have done in Vermont, and then maybe it will make more sense that they're involved. (Again - try google)

    Personally, I'm rooting for them. I could use lower bills and cleaner air - but that's just me.