The Best "New" Energy: Stop Heating the Outdoors
Alternative energy sources are clearly needed and wanted, but some of the biggest and cheapest gains to be made in the field of energy come not from wind, solar, or exotic biomass sources, but rather from simple energy conservation, and improvements in energy efficiency--with no cardigans required.
Simply put, the easiest source of "new" energy comes from simply reducing our existing demand and waste, just like your parents said when they beseeched you to shut the door and stop heating the outdoors! Weatherizing homes--by improving insulation, properly maintaining heating and cooling plants, and blocking and preventing drafts to avoid loss of heated or conditioned air--can yield impressive energy savings for little cost, and at no inconvenience to the homeowner.
Sponsors of government programs, programs which have often focused on providing assistance to homeowners via subsidized payment of heating and utility bills, are now seeing the enormous benefits of reducing up-front energy demand, rather than after-the-fact paying for energy that is lost due to thermal inefficiency. The Stay Warm program in my home state of New Hampshire, for example, mobilized hundreds of volunteers this winter to help weatherize homes for families and senior citizens in need.
Increased federal support, which may be forthcoming in the Obama administration, could both help the US decrease energy demand and energy-related emissions, and put people to work in "green" jobs.
Call it CSI: Thermal Police--energy experts armed with mostly low-tech tools but strong sleuthing skills, finding flaws that let the air inside a house go through a full exchange with the outdoors twice an hour, instead of once every two or three hours.
Correct those flaws, and heating and cooling costs are typically cut by 20 percent to 30 percent, a saving of more than $1,000 annually in some households. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions and the strain on the national electric and gas systems are reduced.
About 140,000 houses will be weatherized with public help this year, a total that President-elect Barack Obama has promised to raise to one million, to reduce energy consumption and cut energy costs for households and taxpayers, who often absorb those costs for the poor. This would represent a historic shift in emphasis for the federal and state governments, reducing poor people’s energy bills instead of helping to pay them.
Weatherizing a million homes annually would also create about 78,000 jobs for a year, according to the federal Energy Department’s weatherization project director, Gil Sperling.
The current 140,000 annual total creates about 8,000 jobs, Mr. Sperling said.
Although that is a tiny fraction of the five million green-collar jobs that Mr. Obama promised in the campaign, “it’s a decent number of jobs per dollar spent,” said Harry J. Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington. “The work is productive, and the jobs are at a mix of skill levels.”
Congress added $250 million to the weatherization budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Energy experts say that money could be effectively spent in low-income households and in households that have no need of public assistance.
In the forgotten corners of tens of millions of American attics and basements, near the old Trivial Pursuit games and out-of-season clothes, are flaws that waste vast amounts of energy. Buildings often resemble colanders. Leaking ducts bleed heated air into areas outside living space. Cold-air returns suck in dust and mold from attics, or gas and oil fumes from garden equipment stored in basements. Long-neglected air filters clog, forcing furnaces or air-conditioners to work harder.
Mr. Obama’s choice for energy secretary, Steven Chu, told a group in Washington in June that an extra $1,000 could make a new house energy efficient “but the American consumer would rather have a granite countertop.”
For the Fick family, the issue was not new countertops. Mrs. Fick and her three children live mostly on disability payments because her husband, Edmund, has multiple sclerosis. For months, she has been paying just enough to avoid having her electricity cut off. Because she is eligible for government aid to help pay her bills, her house, in a subdivision set amid the rolling farm country west of Baltimore, is also eligible for a state weatherization program.
Because most of the houses in the subdivision were built by the same developer and probably the same workers, they are likely to have many of the same energy deficiencies, Mr. Kenny, the manager of C&O Conservation, said.
C&O, which Maryland has designated as the publicly financed weatherization company for half the state’s 24 counties, will work on about 300 of the 2,400 houses that are eligible.
Typical repairs require expertise but generally cost $2,000 or less. The most significant improvement for the Ficks’ house was an inch-thick piece of foam board, which Mr. Kinzer shaped with a utility knife and applied to the exposed heating duct.
The repair cost less than $100, including $10 for materials, but it will cut the Ficks’ heating bill by several hundred dollars per heating season, said Tim Kenny’s father, Tom, a veteran weatherizer.
The larger problem, Tom Kenny said, is selling the concept of weatherization.
“I provide something that’s invisible,” Mr. Kenny said, explaining why there was limited private-sector demand for sealing air leaks, say, compared with the appeal of new windows. But new windows, widely marketed as an energy-saving investment, are not the place to start, experts say.
“We have found weatherization to be a more cost-effective option in decreasing energy bills,” said Mr. Sperling, of the Energy Department.
The four-member team at the Fick home wrapped additional insulation around the water heater, installed compact fluorescent light bulbs, and sealed air ducts with an adhesive compound scooped from a big tub. (Duct tape, Tim Kenny said, has lots of uses, but sealing ducts is not among them.) The work cost about $4,000 and the rate of air infiltration was cut by at least half, he said.
Government aid for weatherization has been modest.
Energy technology research competes for federal aid, said a spokeswoman for the Energy Department. Some states contribute their own money or divert federal money intended to help the poor pay their energy bills.
But utilities that furnish electricity, natural gas and home heating oil have lobbied strongly for programs that provide money to help pay bills.
Although Congress added $250 million to the original $227 million budget for weatherization in the current fiscal year, the number of people receiving weatherization aid is dwarfed by those receiving assistance in paying their energy bills.
“You have six million families a year getting energy assistance, possibly eight million this year, and 150,000 getting weatherization,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, an organization of state officials.
Achieving residential energy efficiency nationwide is a far bigger job than industrial or commercial efficiency because the number of houses dwarfs the number of factories, offices and shopping centers, Mr. Wolfe said. So little has been done in the last few years that “when you start to look at the infrastructure that’s there to do residential energy efficiency in a cost-effective way, it’s very thin,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of talk over the years,” he said, “but there’s not a lot to point to.”
To weatherize a million houses for low-income families every year, Mr. Wolfe said, would require more workers at every level. While it is possible, he said, weatherization companies would have to commit to expanding, and that would happen only if they were persuaded that they would have more work over the long term.
“A lot of the companies that do this work are fairly small,” Mr. Wolfe said. “They need some certainty it’s not a one-year deal, because for them to buy a second truck for $100,000, it’s not a minor decision.”