Electricity sparked Benjamin Franklin‘s curiosity—dangerously so. He strung a wire to an iron rod attached to his chimney, rigging it to ring a bell in the house when struck by lightning (never mind the risk of fire). And in 1752, in the middle of a thunderstorm, he also stuck a wire on a kite (or hung a key on the string, depending on which version you read). The results were electrifying and educational, though not something anyone should try at home.
Sticking to some of Franklin’s other ideas, such as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” seems safer. In that light, a coalition of energy activists, environmentalists, housing advocates, social-justice groups and others wants North Carolina legislators to create a statewide, independent nonprofit, called NC Save$ Energy, that would be charged with reducing residential energy use in North Carolina.
“Energy efficiency is the fastest, cheapest way to deal with our energy issues,” says Gracia O’Neill, assistant director of Clean Water for North Carolina (one of about 30 groups backing the proposal). Saving energy, she explains, saves money, cuts carbon emissions, reduces the need to build new power plants, creates jobs and saves water. Power plants, she notes, account for about 80 percent of the water withdrawals—the total removed from a ground- or surface-water source, some of which is eventually returned to it—in the state.
“The [proposed] bill also includes a job-training program and prioritizes energy-efficiency programs to target low- and moderate-income residents,” says O’Neill. Last year, she notes, the No. 1 request received by the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County was for help paying energy bills. And simple, relatively inexpensive weatherization projects such as installing insulation, caulking drafty windows and putting timers on hot-water heaters could help all residents cut their energy bills, but particularly the most needy, O’Neill argues.
In New York, an energy-efficiency program has saved state residents $230 million since its inception in the late 1990s, says Richard Fireman of NC Interfaith Power and Light, a climate-change program of the North Carolina Council of Churches. That initiative, he reports, has also created or retained almost 5,000 jobs. “For every dollar invested in such programs, you can get back $2 to $3 in the long run,” says Fireman, citing a 2007 study funded by Clean Water for North Carolina.
NC Save$ advocates suggest funding the project via a $2 surcharge on electric bills across the state, with an opt-out option for low-income residents. The surcharge would provide an estimated $60 million per year, and a similarly funded energy-efficiency effort in Oregon has cut annual electricity usage by 931,000 megawatts, notes Fireman, citing the 2007 study.
Both advocates say this is a small price to pay—and a far better option than relying on private utilities to curb energy use.
Jim Warren of the nonprofit North Carolina Waste Awareness & Reduction Network goes a step further: Duke Energy’s Save-A-Watt program, he maintains, is “not serious” and “costs way too much” without even covering the entire state (many Western North Carolina residents, for example, are served by Progress Energy). In Warren’s view, there’s an inherent conflict of interest in expecting for-profit utilities to reduce their customers’ energy bills. “NC Save$ benefits everyone in the state,” he maintains.
A longtime advocate of efforts to address climate change, Warren also trumpets the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and “move away from dirty energy” (i.e. fossil-fuel-fired and nuclear power plants). A Vermont energy-efficiency initiative reduced that state’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions by an estimated 200,000 tons, he reports.
An independent nonprofit would also be better positioned to take advantage of local, state and federal grants, argues O’Neill. But while a portion of the federal economic-stimulus package targets energy programs, “We’re coming in a little late,” she says, noting that North Carolina is years behind some other states. Proponents first pitched the program to the North Carolina Utilities Commission, but the agency said it lacked the requisite authority, she recounts. Nonetheless, “There are caulk-gun-ready programs out there” that NC Save$ could tap into, says O’Neill.
Independent, nonprofit energy initiatives “have been shown to work in other states, and it can work here. It’s just a matter of political will,” O’Neill asserts.
To learn more about NC Save$ Energy, go to www.ncsavesenergy.org. An informational meeting will be held Tuesday, April 7, at the First Congregational Church in downtown Asheville, starting at 7 p.m. Advocates will explain the program and answer questions. For details, call Richard Fireman at 206-8877.
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