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.”