The Green Scene

Builders are always happy to construct million-dollar "green" mansions for the wealthy, and the government is already helping low-income families with weatherization projects, but what are middle-class homeowners and renters to do if they want to go green?

Let the caulking begin? The middle-class needs some help with weatherization and energy-efficiency projects, such as the caulking undertaken here by a Warren Wilson College student participating in the INSULATE! program that assists low-income families. Photo courtesy WWC

It's too early to say for certain, but there's a ray of promise in a document recently released by the White House Council on Environmental Quality: the "Recovery Through Retrofit" report. A product of Vice President Joe Biden's Middle Class Task Force project, the document cites barriers to getting more middle-class homes retrofitted for energy efficiency, including shortages of "straightforward and reliable information," financing for the upfront costs, and "enough skilled workers and green entrepreneurs to expand weatherization and efficiency retrofit programs on a national scale."

The report also outlines some ways to break down these barriers: creating some national standards for training the workforce needed to retrofit the almost 130 million homes in America, helping establish better funding mechanisms to help defray the upfront costs, and setting up an energy-performance label for existing homes, modeled on the Energy Star program already in place for new homes and appliances.

The Asheville area appears to be ahead of the curve on all but the financing problem, say three local experts queried by Xpress.

"The economic end is where we hurt," says Steve Linton, director of sustainable technologies for Deltec Homes. Currently, there are some federal and state tax incentives, as well as a cash-rebate program offered by local electricity provider Progress Energy, but homeowners and renters still face relatively large upfront investments should they wish to install a solar hot-water heater, insulate their attics or seal a crawlspace, he explains. While there are existing programs that help low-income families, for the middle-class, "there's just not much there."

He points out that a good time to retrofit an existing home is when ownership changes. The costs of the retrofit can be included in the new mortgage and thus financed over a longer period.

The city of Milwaukee, Wis., partnered with area utilities and private investors to set up Me2, a program that aims to retrofit every home built before 1960 in the municipality. They do it by charging a small monthly fee on utility bills that amounts to less than the estimated energy-cost savings each homeowner will get through the improvements — and can be transferred to the next property owner, says Torin Kexel, the energy-team coordinator for Asheville Green Opportunities. Kexel, a Milwaukee native, helps train disadvantaged youth and young adults in weatherization and energy-efficiency work. The Milwaukee program "is the kind of thing that could happen in other towns, under Biden's proposals," Kexel continues. While GO's focus has been in helping low-income families, Kexel says it's time to expand the work. Retrofitting homes for energy efficiency has to encompass all income levels.

As the federal report points out, those 130 million existing homes in America — if retrofitted for efficiency — could reduce "energy use by up to 40 percent per home and lower associated greenhouse gas emissions by up to 160 million metric tons annually by the year 2020," the report estimates. It could also boost the economy, such as creating jobs in weatherization.

Says Kexel, "The idea is that you're reducing energy costs and training weatherization crews at the same time."

But the training programs and retrofit projects, whether created on a national level or built from the grassroots, like GO, have to put safety first, Kexel cautions.

Building Analyst Marcus Renner agrees, explaining, "You can't just take a tube of caulk and start sealing things up. You have to have a good idea of how the system works." That is, you can seal a crawl space, caulk leaky windows and such, but the do-it-yourselfer and the trained crew alike have to keep in mind that "tightening the envelope" can trap moisture and lead to mold problems — or keep combustion-based appliances from drawing the fresh air needed for them to function.

He and Kexel both voice concern that a beefed-up national program could increase the number of fly-by-night operators who are out to make a buck and not concerned with health and safety. Says Kexel, "It has to be done right."

Still, every building can be made more energy efficient, from fixing the "low-hanging fruit" (the easy stuff, like switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs or placing a "sweep" at the bottom of a drafty door). Even in newer homes, "The number-one energy loss in a home is from air leaks," says Renner.

He's hoping the retrofit-report's recommendations lead to funding and opportunities for more costly improvements. Locally, he points out, GO, Progress Energy and the nonprofit agency Community Action Opportunities have been providing grants and other funds for a number of weatherization projects that target low-income households.

The next step is moving up to middle-income households, he continues. And despite the current economic challenges, "This is the best time in history to implement energy-efficiency measures."
• Friday, Nov. 6 through Sunday, Nov. 8, North Carolina is sponsoring a tax-free holiday on your purchase of certain energy-efficient appliances, from refrigerators to heat pumps. And a rebate program is planned for a four-day period centered on Earth Day in April 2010. For more information, go to www.energync.net/resources/docs/press/10152009.pdf.
• To read the full Retrofit Through Recovery report, go to www.whitehouse.gov/StrongMiddleClass/reports.
• To learn more about Progress Energy's Home Energy Improvement Program, which gives cash rebates, call (866) 990-4347 or go to http://progress-energy.com/custservice/carres/efficiency/programs/heip/index.asp.

Send your environmental news to mvwilliams@mountainx.com or call 251-1333, ext. 152.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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