Energy and where we get our power are hot topics locally and nationally. Renewable sources like hydro-power, wind and solar that reduce harmful CO² emissions have been on the rise and at the forefront of many conversations. It’s important, however, to recognize the first steps to achieving energy independence and equitable solutions are to harvest the low hanging fruit in our energy-intensive world.
Lack of energy efficient homes and buildings is a social justice problem and an environmental issue. From an environmental standpoint, expending energy from inefficient buildings is one of the largest contributors of harmful greenhouse gases. It is estimated that buildings contribute an average of 35 to 40 percent of all the emissions worldwide. This figure includes the materials used in buildings, transporting materials, the production and use of cement – an estimated 8 percent of all GHG emissions – and the constant energy to keep homes and buildings running. Buildings and homes need to be one of the first sectors addressed if we are to reduce the human-made contributions of a warming planet.
How is energy efficiency a social-justice issue? It’s a fact that lower income families pay a disproportionate amount of their income on utilities. According to a 2016 report by the organization Energy Efficiency For All, “on average, low-income households pay 7.2 percent of household income on utilities – more than twice as much as the median household and three times as much as higher-income households. If low-income housing stock were brought up to the efficiency level of the average U.S. home, this would eliminate 35 percent of the average low-income energy burden of low-income households.”
Energy efficiency makes sense for the local economy and increases our community’s resilience. In an extensive report by Environmental Entrepreneurs in 2016, clean energy jobs amounted to “1.9 million energy efficiency workers in the U.S. (who) work for small businesses with five employees or less, and about 70 percent work for companies with 10 employees or less.” Better energy codes create jobs for subcontractors from insulation providers, weatherization companies, heating and HVAC companies, auditors, solar installers, electricians and more. Employing local contractors supports local businesses.
Energy efficiency isn’t sexy. There aren’t compelling pictures of children with window caulking, or a blower door test that changed someone’s life, but the resulting stories of cost-savings and keeping warm through cold winter nights can make a big difference in a family’s well-being.
It’s often hard to “sell” energy efficiency, that is, until you see the cost-savings. Then the arguments dissipate. Energy is the highest cost of maintaining a home, higher than property taxes and higher than insurance. In the U.S., the average utility cost is $2,000 per year. A home that is just 30 percent more efficient than an average home will put tens of thousands in the wallets of home-owning families over its long 70- to 100-year life, according to the Energy Efficiency Code Coalition. The financial return on an energy-efficient home is always positive and recoups the upgrades within one to two years. A National Association of Homebuilders survey found that nine out of 10 Americans want permanent energy-saving features and will pay 2 to 3 percent more for a home that has them.
Building homes is expensive in our region. Conversations often focus on how new energy codes will increase the cost to builders and little emphasis is given to long-term savings for homeowners and renters who can save thousands in utility bills with more energy efficient homes. Opting to skimp on energy efficiency measures at the beginning of home design and construction will cost thousands of dollars over the life of the home. The city and county are adopting new energy codes. Advancing to the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code will save “between $4,763 and $33,105 for home-owning families over a typical 30-year mortgage.”
What can we do locally about existing homes and buildings? Aside from the immediate, well–documented upgrades like LED lights, programmable thermostats, phantom plug loads, etc., there are energy efficiency programs available locally.
You can call La Plata Electric Association for a free energy assessment, or call the Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency for information about two new energy efficiency audit and upgrade programs; CARE – free for income-qualified residents, or the Energy Smart Program. Both these programs offer affordable steps to energy efficiency, immediate cost-savings, reduction in CO² emissions and healthier living for all.
Laurie Dickson, LEED AP is Executive Director of 4CORE. Reach her at 259-1916 or fourcore.org.