By Lynn Doan
Late last year, Connecticut Light & Power Co. was desperate for energy conservation money.
Several programs it runs for the state, which pay for power-saving improvements from lightbulbs in homes to tinted windows in office parks, were oversubscribed. The company had promised $10 million it didn't have to companies seeking energy subsidies, and was forced to borrow from this year's budget.
Suddenly, everything turned upside down.
The federal government awarded Connecticut $39 million in stimulus money for energy-efficiency programs. Millions of dollars in proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative began flowing into the energy-efficiency programs administered by CL&P and United Illuminating Co.
And the state's energy-conservation fund, which state legislators raided years ago to plug other budget gaps, is being replenished.
CL&P now has $20 million in energy-efficiency money to hand out by the end of the year. Its southwestern Connecticut counterpart, UI, has about $25 million to burn.
The only problem now: They aren't getting a lot of takers.
"It's the state of the economy. People are just watching their pennies right now," said Ron Araujo, who directs energy conservation funding for CL&P. "And it's too bad, because we've got a lot of room."
Most of the company's programs require recipients to invest some of their own money. Home Energy Solutions, which sends an energy auditor into your home to check for inefficiencies like air leaks and power-wasting lightbulbs, costs most homeowners $75. The Small Business Energy Advantage program will subsidize things like programmable thermostats, but requires the company to pick up a percentage of the costs.
FLEEING THE STATE
And it's not just about the money.
Energy consultants said that after last year's funding scare, residents and businesses that once considered signing up for the utilities' programs got cold feet. When CL&P overspent its efficiency budget, the utility was forced to renege on offers to subsidize more than 600 companies' energy projects. In some cases, the companies had already spent thousands of dollars to retrofit their offices with things like tinted windows, natural gas boilers and automatic sensors - only to find they were no longer eligible for state rebates.
State regulators eventually allowed CL&P to borrow from its budget for the following to fulfill its commitments.
"That kind of thing leaves any business with a real bad taste in their mouth," said Manchester energy contractor Patrick Kearney, "and it makes you look like a bozo out there."
Energy-efficiency vendors like Kearney, who promote the state's energy programs to generate business and help people apply for state rebates, were outraged by the budget shortfalls. They were further agitated when Gov. M. Jodi Rell began proposing to take money from the state energy-conservation fund to help close the state's mounting deficit.
Rell's proposal prompted CL&P to suspend some of its efficiency activities, including residential audits, earlier this year. When it appeared state legislators would safeguard money for the programs, the company reinstated all of them.
By then, Kearney said, several energy-efficiency vendors had had enough.
Since last year, he estimated, 25 percent of energy-efficiency contractors - and the "green workers" they employed - either shut their doors or left Connecticut for other states whose energy budgets aren't so volatile.
"The stability of funding is critical," said Pat McDonnell, who directs energy-conservation money for UI. "When our political leaders even hint at the possibility of these funds being diverted, it sends a very negative message to businesses in the program - it means you can't invest in your business. It means you can't hire more people."
Kearney is holding out hope that, with infusions from the federal government and RGGI, Connecticut's "green" work force can rebuild itself and the state will resurface as a leader in energy conservation and efficiency.
"We've all been here before, and we have rebuilt," he said.
Kearney was referring to a legislative decision made six years ago to cut the state's energy-conservation fund - generated through a charge on utility customers' bills - by one-third. The raid prompted an exodus of energy vendors from the state and caused activity in the program to wane.
When fuel prices soared in 2007 and 2008, residents and businesses took new interest in the programs. Energy vendors found themselves with more work than they could handle.
Nearly 20,000 households signed up for energy audits last year, up from about 16,000 the year before. And the number of businesses that received rebates for completing energy-efficiency projects jumped from 2,655 to 3,072 - including the businesses whose rebates were reinstated after the budget shortfall.
CL&P said this surge in interest is what caused it to overspend its budget last year.
Now, flush with multimillion-dollar surpluses, CL&P and UI are finding themselves trying to recapture momentum with brochures, press releases and seminars.
Last month, officials from nearly 50 towns crowded into a conference room at the Crowne Plaza in Cromwell as CL&P representatives clicked through PowerPoint slides showing the offerings.
UI held a similar event at about the same time. UI has spent only $5 million of the $30 million it has budgeted for this year.
Once families get back from summer vacations, McDonnell said, he hopes they consider applying for a program.
"It's not like people are going to come knocking and find we're not home," he said. "There's plenty of uncommitted dollars at this point."
EMPOWERING THE PUBLIC
Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating administer energy conservation programs for the state. Here are some of the services they offer:
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