Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

California city provides financing for homeowners to encourage more energy-efficient homes

A story in Environment magazine details a financing program being offered in Berkley, Calif., that helps homeowners pay for improvements that increase energy efficiency:

Many barriers exist to reducing energy consumption and increasing the use of renewable energy. One is high first cost (“up-front cost”), which is both a psychological and financial barrier for many people. Our research group from the University of California, Berkeley, has worked with a number of cities, initially Berkeley to address this barrier by making financing for solar power installations and energy-efficiency retrofits more appealing and accessible to property owners. Urgency around the need to cut emissions has inspired cities to apply old tools, such as municipal financing, to the new problem of reducing the amount of carbon in the energy supply.

Here is the gist of it: the city issues special purpose bonds to create a finance pool for energy efficiency retrofits. When a homeowners’ application is approved, the work is done. The city issues a check to pay for it and puts a lien on the home. A special tax is then added to repay the city with interest over a 20-year period, and these payments are tax-deductible, similar to a home equity loan. The program is self-supporting, so there is no exposure for the city in terms of expenditures from the general fund, and only homeowners that are approved by the program are subjected to the special tax.

To say that there has been a great deal of interest in the Berkley program would be a massive understatement. The vote to authorize the program passed with 81 percent of the vote, and enough applications for the entire initial program allotment of $1.5 million were submitted within the first ten minutes. As of summer 2008, the city had recieved over 1,300 inquiries from around the world about the program.

The authors are concerned about not just reducing energy usage, but especially in the need to retrofit existing housing stock in order to meet the state’s ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets – hence the mention of solar installations. However, as they themselves point out, retrofitting solar photovoltaic (PV) or solar thermal heating upgrades only makes financial sense in areas that have moderate-to-high energy costs and where rebates or subsidies are available to homeowners, and only if compared with future energy costs that include an as-yet-unimplemented carbon tax. On the other hand, increasing the energy efficiency of homes pays of in all cases. One advantage of subsidizing such “efficiency-only” efforts would be the increased number of homeowners that could participate in such programs, since the average cost of upgrading to highly efficient furnaces, sealing against air infiltration/loss, and adding ductwork etc. to improve efficiency are much less expensive than a solar PV retrofit. These measures also have the benefit of making the houses more comfortable to live in.

Saving money and having a more comfortable home? As I sit here feeling the cold air drafting through my own 30-year-old house, I can’t help thinking that if such a program were available that I would sign up in a heartbeat.

Planning for additional renewable energy generation “not done”

This is one of the problems of not having an effective national energy strategy. From the LA Times comes this story: ‘Green’ energy plan in Obama stimulus may be losing steam:

The stimulus package increasingly appears unlikely to include major investments in “green infrastructure” — the wires and rails that could deliver renewable energy to Americans’ homes and help end the nation’s addiction to oil — according to alternative-energy advocates who are discussing the plans with the Obama transition team.

It’s a timing issue. The blueprints and, in many cases, the authority don’t exist to lay miles of high-speed rail lines or to build a sprawling web of power lines to create a truly national electric grid.

Remember August 2003 blackout? Some of the most heavily populated areas in the Northeast US were affected – including New York City – as well as the most people in Canada. It was caused by a power transmission system that was inadequate for the admittedly high load placed on it that day.
August 2003 blackout

It took several days to restore the network.

The cascade failure actually started near my house. It was set in motion by one of the high-voltage transmission lines sagging into a nearby tree and grounding out.

This should have been a wake-up call for a more robust power distribution system. Instead, the power company reacted by: cutting down trees within 100′ of their lines. Which was understandable: nobody was stepping up to provide any incentive to do so, other than customer outrage, and that’s transient. Still, it’s hard to believe that five years later, there has been no serious planning done to lay the groundwork for an improved power distribution grid.:

Hello world!

Some explanation about myself: I am not usually this serious, but I take energy independence really seriously. So I am going to try really really hard to be serious on this blog. My goofy side is on display enough places anyway.

Anyway: about me. I’m concerned about the environment, but don’t consider myself an environmentalist – and definitely not a tree-hugger.

I’m concerned about the possibility of global warming, but I don’t know enough to say either “We need to act NOW” or “It’s all a lot of hand-waving.” Kind of the same way I feel about UFOs – I know enough to say I don’t know.

The T. Boone Pickens plan to replace the fuel for our vehicles with natural gas (hopefully, produced domestically) and replace natural-gas-powered power plants with renewable (specifically wind) energy strikes me as bold, visionary, and incomplete. More on that later. To sum up: it’s a good place to start a discussion about national energy policy.

I am encouraged by the effort underway by elected offficials in Cuyahoga County to assess the feasibility of
commercial-scale wind generation in Lake Erie, but concerned that they’re missing the larger picture. More on that later, too. To sum up: should county government be trying to pick the winner in the renewable energy lottery, and is the goal to lessen dependence on coal-fired plants for generation or to reinvigorate NE Ohio’s manufacturing sector? Those goals aren’t entirely compatible.

Anyway, here’s my point: reasonable people can disagree, hopefully without being disagreeable. If climate change is real, if energy independence deserves to be a national priority, if refocusing national energy policy on renewables is a sound strategy for economic growth or environmental protection or both then Americans ought to be able to find some consensus on  those issues. Note that I said “consensus,” not “agreement.”

So here we go!