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Energy retrofits are sexy!

They can keep you warm at night!

This post has two parts: the part that discusses some very large retrofits going on, and the part that lists a variety of programs designed to help individuals with home energy retrofits, though two of them are still in the “hasn’t passed Congress yet” stage.

Two large retrofit projects going on now are the Empire State Building and the House of Representatives.

I highly recommend reading this article about the Empire State Building in Preservation Magazine, which also gives a nice, brief history of the building. The article describes the energy retrofits being included in a $550 million restoration,which are projected to reduce energy consumption by 38 percent, decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 105,000 metric tons over 15 years, and save $4.4 million every year.

The restoration will include retrofits like removing every. single. window. and replacing them (reusing the existing glass) with a sheet of Mylar and argon-krypton gas filling the space between the panes. The Mylar will reflect heat from the sun, and divide the air gap into two separate insulating pockets; the gas improves the insulation value of the gap. Another, simpler, improvement is to put insulation between the radiators and the walls. So that the heat goes into the room, not the wall. The wall won’t mind. Ventilation and the chiller plant are also going to be improved, and a variety of electronic controls will manage electric lighting, equipment loads, and provide data to the users. There is ample natural light, and the windows are operable. Because when they were designed, operable windows were your air conditioning system. (I would gladly trade most modern a/c systems for an old system with operable windows.)

Retrofitting is important not just to lower operating costs, and improve tenant comfort (and improve the odds that they’ll pay more rent), but to preserve the building and not lose its embodied energy. It’s cheaper to retrofit than to have to replace the whole building.

A little farther south, the House of Representatives has just begun a 30 month project to cut energy use by 23% and water use by 32%. The project will replace light fixtures, install low-flow fixtures in bathrooms, and upgrade the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems. The article describes other measures being taken as part of Speaker Pelosi’s Green the Capitol Initiative, which has the goal of making the House as close to carbon-neutral as possible.

A private company, NORESCO, is covering the $34 million cost, and will be repaid out of the savings that the upgrades create, expected to be $3.3 million a year, for over $67 million in total. So no taxpayer money is being spent on the project, which is probably the only reason it got going at all (I’m sorry, was that cynical?). It is not clear from the article if all of the savings is going back to NORESCO, or not. I’d rather that taxpayer money was being used, because then we could be benefiting from the payback in ways other than reducing costs to operate the House. I’m sure they could have found a worthy program to spend the $67 million on! Like perhaps even more subsidies for retrofitting the houses of taxpayers.

Home energy retrofits. They sound like a great idea; who wants drafty windows? Lowering heating and electric bills is also really appealing! But the upfront cost of fixing those problems well (plastic sheeting taped over the windows only goes so far), when the payoff may take many years, prevents many people from taking major steps to improve their home’s performance. Putting insulation into the walls of your 100-year-old house may not be a massive expense, but if it’s going to take 10 years to see a return on it, it’s harder to justify the cost. However, there are programs out there that, if passed, would make it much easier to manage the cost:

PACE is an idea that has actually been around for over 2 years, which “allows private property owners to pay for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects through an addition to their property tax bill, overcoming the high upfront costs that prevent most property owners from investing in such retrofits.” It is adopted on a city-by-city basis, and so far, 18 states (Mass. is not among them) have adopted legislation to permit municipalities to do this.

Not yet passed: HOME STAR, aka Cash for Caulkers (and not to be confused with this Homestar), is a Federal program to encourage people to retrofit their homes to save energy, and to simultaneously provide more jobs in the energy retrofit provision field. There are two levels: Silver, which is simpler and acts like a checklist (i.e., “replace inefficient appliances”), and Gold, which involves doing a complete energy audit of your home and then implement a variety of measures that will work together as a system. (via greendesigncollective)

Also hopefully coming soon (the legislation was just introduced yesterday), there’s also a program for rural homeowners, who can’t benefit from a municipality’s participation in the PACE program, and who may not be able to afford the up-front cost required by the Home Star/Cash for Caulkers program. It has bipartisan support (!!! in this day and age! fetch me my smelling salts!), which bodes well.

The Boston Area Social Energy Association had two forum sessions (April and May of the 2008-2009 series) on the topic of energy retrofits; here on their archive page you can find links to the presentations by Paul Eldrenkamp and others. The April forum presentation was focused on what his company does when they do deep energy retrofits, and should give you some idea of what’s involved (a lot of the details – as well as a lot of the Doom and Gloom about the necessity of doing A LOT of this – are not written out in the presentation).

One thing I’m really curious about is whether any of this will have much impact in areas like Boston, where a lot of houses are rental properties. What incentive do the owners have to fix them up? They’re most likely not paying the heat or electric bills, and while everyone who has ever rented is thrilled to find an apartment with lower-than-average heating bills, is “recently retrofitted to lower heating costs” going to be appealing enough to convince someone to pay a higher rent every month?

I’ve heard a lot of renters in the area complain about the cost of heating, about drafts from old windows, and lack of insulation in the walls (I’ve been one of those renters; in one place, I ran packing tape around the bottom of the wall, over the trim, because there were drafts COMING OUT FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE WALL), but if it came to moving to a new apartment that promised insulation and sexy new storm windows, would I pick that over an older place? Heating costs can vary a lot based on so many things besides good construction, like what floor you are on (my semi-basement apartment in one place was toasty all winter). I don’t know. I suspect that the best way for a landlord to really convince tenants that the higher rent was worthwhile would be to get proof of heating costs . . . and that sounds like more work than I expect the majority would be willing to put in. Assuming that tenants would be willing to provide that information to a soon-to-be-former landlord.

The Empire State Building can count on its tenants to pay higher rent for lower operating costs (and snazzy, modernized office spaces), but I’m skeptical that retrofits can scale the same way for individual apartments.

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