|Resolution 2012: Focus on Positive Energy
January 9, 2012
Writing the first Hotline of the new year has its challenges. Do I focus on the multitude of disasters and climate-related economic loss from 2011?
The “wacky” weather we continue to experience as our winter swings from balmy to frigid nearly every week?
What about the latest fight over the massive oil pipeline threatening to divide our country in two, literally and figuratively?
Nope. Instead, I will focus on a few positive, if less earth shattering, headlines related to energy efficiency this week. Drumroll, please.
Recently, Habitat for Humanity launched an ambitious nationwide initiative to incorporate energy-efficiency into their model of building homes for low-income families. With a focus on saving homeowners money on their utility bills, Habitat now requires its 1,550 US affiliates to construct houses that meet Energy Star requirements for energy efficiency. According to Habitat representatives, many homes can be built to those standards with under $2,000 in additional project costs. Pilot projects around the country have already proven the model successful: families in the new homes are paying an average $100 a month for their electricity use, considerably less than they doled out before moving into their new, improved homes. The new houses use efficient heating systems, extra insulation and energy-efficient appliances. These are all welcome additions to low-income families used to paying a much larger percentage of their income on energy and experiencing less comfort at home than their middle-income counterparts.
It is easy to overlook the fact that the average American home uses the same amount of energy today as it did in the early 1970s. That troubling fact persists despite considerable upgrades to construction and home appliance technology over the same time period. Refrigerators and dishwashers use half the energy they used to, but as homes get bigger, TVs get wider, laptops get faster and smartphones get smarter, the additional energy needed to power these items skyrocketed. Thankfully, builders and homeowners now have more advanced tools to monitor this type of energy usage. One new example comes from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The Home Energy Saver program calculates specific inputs about one’s utility costs, home square footage, and type of energy generation calculated by zip code, among other parameters, to outline comparisons to typical homes in the area. The program then suggests various cost-effect energy-saving investments that would bring down monthly energy bills. Try it for yourself at: hes.lbl.gov/consumer
In addition, more and more municipalities are teaming with utilities to kick-start smart meter pilot projects. New Orleans and Entergy are a great example of this with their new Energy Smart In-Home Display program, which provides a free smart meter for 300 homes to teach families how to make informed choices to use less energy in 2012. On a bigger scale, new research from research firm IHS shows that over the last year, global smart meter sales will expand from 20.5 million in 2010 to 62 million by 2016. Europe leads the charge to bring this technology to market, but Asia – especially China – follows right on its heels. At home and around the world, one thing remains constant: knowledge is power. Equipping property owners with detailed energy usage information (available on those fancy smartphones) will have a substantial long-term impact on CO2 reduction.
Notably, it is not just modestly sized homes that benefit from energy efficiency retrofits. Last year, the 102-story Empire State Building got a facelift of its own, leading to a LEED Gold Certification from the US Green Building Council. The $20-million retrofit has already reduced the energy footprint of the massive icon by 40 percent, according to air and energy program lawyer Katherine Kennedy of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Roughly half of the buildings standing today will still be in use in 2050. Research indicates that, at a minimum, skyscrapers like the Empire State Building could improve their energy efficiency by at least 20 percent with simple fixes like better insulation, caulking leaks and upgrades to heating and cooling systems. Projections like this led billionaire businessman Richard Branson and philanthropic institutions like the Ygrene Energy Fund to create a consortium that plans to invest as much as $650 million in similar retrofits in Miami and Sacramento. They are not the only fans: according to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “The effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change will be won or lost in cities.”
While progress toward efficiency often seems to crawl along at a painfully slow pace, a new survey by the Institute for Electric Efficiency (IEE), a utility-funded group advocating energy conservation, shows that efficiency budgets nationwide actually rose 20 percent over the last year, an increase of double the investment since 2007. The report’s conclusion comes from data extrapolated from 172 utilities and 23 state and local entitles charged with promoting efficiency. New efficiency policies in Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, the District of Columbia and West Virginia are part of this large increase: all of these states at least doubled their efficiency budgets in that time period. While it is no revelation that California and New York, Massachusetts and Florida have the largest budgets dedicated to energy efficiency programs, you may be surprised to know that states like Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas are currently considering or recently passed energy efficiency measures through legislation, building code standards and/or public service commission rules. In 2009, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory predicted national energy efficiency budgets would grow to $7.5 billion by 2020. If recent trends continue, this figure will not only be met in 2012, but possibly even exceeded.
And that’s not a bad outcome to look forward to this year, is it?
Kellyn Garrison, Southeast Regional Coordinator