This winter, the price of heating oil spiked. This spring, gasoline topped $5 per gallon in some parts of Vermont. Many of us are feeling the pinch of inflation and cost of living increases. For years, community action agencies have offered income-eligible Vermonters support in managing their finances. Now, a new statewide program ties together financial and energy coaching, making more seamless the process of cutting costs and saving energy.
“Basically, we wanted to bring low and moderate income Vermonters into the climate conversation,” said Kelsey Gibb, the statewide team lead of the new coaching program. The program, launched in March, is state-funded and organized through the Vermont Community Action Partnership, and there’s a coach at each community action agency. In WEC’s service area, that’s Capstone and NEKCA. All coaches work within the statewide program GreenSavingSmart (GreenSavingSmart.org), and also have the freedom and flexibility to bring in partnerships and incentives that exist within their own agency or region. That means, for example, that a WEC member who works with Capstone’s coach, Laurie Kozar, might also end up connecting with WEC’s own Energy Coach, Director of Products & Services Bill Powell, for incentives the Co-op makes available to its own members.
The program developed, Gibb explained, out of community action agencies’ robust financial counseling programs, which serve households earning up to the state median income, or higher with other factors, such as reliance on a single income, or if individuals in the household identify as BIPOC or New American. People with less means are disproportionately affected by the cost of energy, said Gibb, and financial coaches noticed that often, their clients’ financial struggles were tied directly to the high cost of heating and transportation: drafty homes, low-MPG vehicles.
One thing financial coaches noticed, Gibb said, was that some Vermonters who qualified for the MileageSmart program, which helps income-eligible Vermonters purchase used high-MPG vehicles, faced difficulty financing the balance of the vehicle cost. The new coaching model helps smooth the path between financial and energy decisions. The program’s aim, Gibb said, is to “fill the gap between programs, build skills, and connect participants with programs and incentives that already exist.”
Kozar, the coach at Capstone, described how coaching could help reduce a household’s bills and emissions simultaneously. Someone might call a coach for help with their finances, she offered, and going over their expenses, their home heating bills show they’re a candidate for weatherization. Or: their gas vehicle won’t pass inspection, and they need help building their credit score to apply for a loan to get a new vehicle, and they discover the MileageSmart program offers $5,000 toward a newer hybrid. “The role of a coach is to say, ‘This way! These services are over here,’” Kozar said. She links clients with financial partners for low-interest loans and green energy incentives. Coaches work closely with Efficiency Vermont, NETO (Northeast Employment and Training Organization), credit unions, and utilities, among others. She helps clients crunch numbers and see their monthly bills drop and their credit scores rise.
And every client’s situation is unique. “The program by nature has to be infinitely flexible,” said Kozar. “Heat pumps and EVs aren’t one size fits all.” Someone who drives a low-MPG vehicle but lives in a village with a very short commute, she suggested, may not be a candidate for an EV. “We’re not going to increase a client’s financial burden or energy usage: we’re trying to solve the problem in the best possible way with a focus on financial and energy usage.”
The coaches have participated in training to learn more about various energy incentives in Vermont, but their primary energy expertise is in making the right connections for their clients. Earlier this year, Bill Powell led a training for the coaches. Kozar, a former WEC member, said bringing in Powell was a no-brainer. “He’s so knowledgeable and has been doing this stuff for so long, he has great resources he could refer us to. I know I can refer clients in WEC’s territory to WEC, and Bill will provide them with great service.”
The coaching program partly grew out of MileageSmart, and aims to make MileageSmart work better. It’s a program Powell points to as a key support in making high-mileage cars more affordable and lowering emissions in Vermont’s transportation sector.
And while the coaches are very familiar with the program, you don’t need to go through a coach to access MileageSmart. The program focuses on replacing expensive, low-MPG, high-emissions vehicles with used high-MPG hybrids and EVs by covering 25% of the sticker price up to $5,000. The balance is covered by any combination of trade-in, cash, and/or financing. “It’s not about promoting EVs so much as a high-mileage vehicle that suits your budget,” explained Powell.
Rachel Lohia bought a car through MileageSmart in 2021. When she learned about the program on Front Porch Forum, her husband, Livingstone, was driving for Lyft and their car was “a Jeep Cherokee that was guzzling gas,” she remembered. They filled out the application form on MileageSmartVT.org, and went to an electric vehicle fair at Harwood Union High School to see some vehicles in person. She did her own research, by her own choice and interest, she said, but added that a coach’s support would be helpful. MileageSmart also sent her listings and dealership locations for available vehicles, and took care of the paperwork.
When it came time to trade in the Jeep and pick up their 2017 Kia Nero hybrid, Lohia said, “we just had to show up with a check.” And just like that, her family’s spending on gas went from $40 a day to $40 a week.
Where to begin
Members who need general support managing their finances and bringing down their household costs are advised to start by filling out a quick coaching eligibility form on GreenSavingSmart.org. A coach will reach out directly to eligible members. You can also contact Capstone or NEKCA, the community action agencies operating in WEC’s service area.
Members who are interested in the MileageSmart incentive can start at MileageSmartVT.org to determine eligibility and check vehicle availability. The program serves Vermonters who are at or below 80% of the State Median Income, or $67,300 for a family of four.
Members interested in purchasing an EV who may not qualify for MileageSmart are still eligible for WEC’s EV incentives – between $1,200 – $1,900 for a new EV – and should contact Bill Powell directly. An EV is a big addition to household load; your transformer, wire, and service entrance (or fuse box) need to be assessed and possibly upgraded before you plug it in.
Plus: WEC offers many incentives for weatherization and home heating upgrades that can be stacked with incentives from Efficiency Vermont and financed at low interest. A community action agency coach can help you navigate the best choices for you and your household within your own financial situation and lifestyle; for a la carte services, contact Bill Powell, WEC’s energy coach.
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