Air leaks in homes can be hard to see, but they’re usually the biggest energy waste culprit. Credit: U.S. EPA
by Mark Schofield
If you’re aware of our current climate crisis, chances are you’ve contemplated ways to reduce your personal contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For some it might mean purchasing a highly efficient electric vehicle, or using different modes of transportation, such as walking or biking. Others may focus on changing dietary habits, or eschewing airline travel, or divesting from fossil fuels.
But have you considered the contributor to climate chaos that’s directly over your head? In fact, the built environment — specifically your home — is likely your greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions. While we might agonize over a car’s fuel efficiency, how often do people fret about the energy performance of an old clunker of a home? And how would we even measure a home’s equivalent of “miles per gallon?”
The good news is that a local program, the Community Energy Challenge (CEC), is available to help inform homeowners and demystify the process of making homes more energy efficient. The CEC is a successful 10-year-old nonprofit partnership between the Opportunity Council, which focuses on energy efficiency upgrades in residential buildings, and Sustainable Connections, which does the same for commercial buildings. This program provides homeowners with a full energy audit at a discounted rate, a comprehensive report detailing cost-effective measures, ongoing consultation, quality assurance, and financial incentives.
Working together with neighbors in Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties, CEC is collectively saving the equivalent of over 12 million kilowatt hours annually in residential buildings alone. These savings are achieved by addressing the air sealing and insulation needs of homes. On average, homes that receive energy efficiency upgrades through the CEC reduce energy use by around 25 percent.
Perhaps best of all, home energy efficiency upgrades provide a range of immediate co-benefits far beyond energy savings and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. An efficient home is safer, healthier and more comfortable. An efficient home also reduces energy bills, and improves durability of the structure. Globally, nationally and locally, there is a growing recognition that improving the efficiency of our buildings is the cornerstone of an effective climate response and enhances quality of life.
The kilowatt hour (or 1000-watt hours) is probably the most recognizable measure of energy. Every month, your electric utility bill displays energy usage in kilowatt hours. Puget Sound Energy charges around 10 cents per kilowatt hour. So, if you ran a 100-watt incandescent light bulb (think kids’ easy bake toy oven) for 10 hours, you would consume 1000-watt hours — or one kilowatt hour — of energy, costing you about 10 cents.
But there’s another unit of energy that deserves equal attention: the negawatt hour. A term coined by energy guru Amory Lovins, negawatt hour refers to a unit of energy saved. In his 1990 article, The Negawatt Revolution, the Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder argues that “customers don’t want kilowatt-hours; they want services such as hot showers, cold beer, lit rooms, and spinning shafts, which can come more cheaply from using less electricity more efficiently.” (1) To see this in action, swap out that 100-watt incandescent light bulb for a 13-watt LED bulb. Sure, you won’t be making any baked treats with that LED, but you’ll get the same amount of light output (around 1,300 lumens) while creating 87-negawatts. Same lighting services, seven times the energy/cost savings! When it comes down to it, the cheapest energy is the energy we don’t use.
On a global scale, energy efficiency has made a dent in energy use. A 2018 International Energy Agency report finds that “efficiency gains since 2000 prevented 12 percent more energy use than would have otherwise been the case in 2017.” (2) Still, the report notes that gains in energy efficiency have not kept pace with increased energy demand resulting from economic growth and changing consumer habits.
Here in the United States, a 2019 analysis from American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy outlines the potential of utilizing energy efficiency to cut our nation’s greenhouse emissions in half by 2050. By implementing efficiency measures across several different areas such as buildings, transportation and industry, the analysis finds that the United States “can reduce emissions and deliver energy savings worth more than $700 billion by 2050.” (3)
The Washington state Legislature has also recognized both the necessity and opportunity for energy efficiency improvements in buildings. Last year, the Legislature passed HB 1257, a bill that aims to reduce greenhouse emissions by establishing energy performance standards for existing commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet. In the text of the bill, lawmakers acknowledged various studies showing “that efficiency is the region’s largest, cheapest, and lowest risk energy resource.” (4) The bill also highlights how critical efficiency is to our state’s climate goals, as “buildings represent the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington, and emissions from the buildings sector have grown by 50 percent since 1990, far outpacing all other emission sources.” (5)
Even closer to home, energy efficiency in the building sector emerged as a key component of the recent Bellingham Climate Action Task Force recommendations. (6) The task force recognized that energy efficiency retrofits in buildings sets the stage for electrifying space heating. For example, an efficient heat pump space heater can be “right sized” for a home once air sealing and insulation has been completed, allowing for less expensive heating equipment and lower operating costs.
It is clear that energy efficiency is effective and necessary in reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s the other co-benefits of energy efficiency — especially improved home health — that make it attractive to a broad population.
Infrared images taken during a home energy audit can help locate air leaks or poor insulation levels that are otherwise hidden from view. Credit: CEC
Co-Benefits of Home Energy Efficiency
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend around 90 percent of their time indoors, being exposed to air that is two to five times more polluted than outside air. (7) Now consider this: much of the “fresh air” in a typical, poorly sealed home comes from the crawl space. That unpleasant air enters the living space through small holes and gaps in the floor, carrying moisture and various pollutants with it. Or, take a home with little or no wall insulation, where condensation forms on the cold surfaces, creating ideal conditions for mold growth. These situations create less than ideal living conditions.
In its 2016 paper Occupant Health Benefits of Residential Energy Efficiency, (8) E4The Future examines the research around the impact of home weatherization on the indoor living environment and the health of inhabitants. Evidence shows, for example, that sealing air leaks and adding insulation influences indoor air quality, temperature and humidity, resulting in less heart disease and hypertension, reduced respiratory impacts (especially for asthmatics), and fewer deaths related to temperature extremes.
The co-benefits of home energy efficiency improvements are not limited to health. These types of home upgrades contribute to building durability, result in lower energy bills, and enhance job creation in our community.
Since 2010, the Community Energy Challenge has performed energy audits and supported efficiency upgrades for thousands of homes. Yet, among all the homes in CEC’s service territory constructed before 1990 (the built date cutoff for CEC services), we know that a large proportion have never even been analyzed for energy efficiency improvements. What’s stopping owners of these older homes from pursuing effective energy upgrades? Here are a few common barriers that hinder adoption of energy efficiency improvements in homes — and the associated solutions that CEC provides:
Lack of information about what efficiency upgrades are available or needed in the home.
Beyond a basic understanding of their home, most owners lack the building science background and technical expertise to properly assess a home’s energy efficiency needs. So, CEC provides low-cost comprehensive energy audits that utilize a variety of tools to determine air leakage, combustion safety and insulation levels. With that data, CEC Home Energy Advisors model energy savings and share customized recommendations on the most cost-effective ways to improve a home’s energy efficiency.
Lack of familiarity with qualified contractors who can install effective upgrades. CEC solution: With so many home improvement professionals in our region, it can be a challenge to find one with the necessary expertise to successfully perform home energy efficiency retrofits. Community Energy Challenge provides guidance and support in choosing qualified contractors and soliciting bids. Although homeowners completing a project through CEC are welcome to work with the contractor of their choice, CEC advises on the specific skills and qualifications a homeowner may want to look for in a contractor. Barrier #3: High cost of upgrades.
While energy efficiency upgrades result in lower energy bills and pay for themselves over time, the upfront costs can be daunting. For homeowners who choose to implement recommended measures, CEC provides incentives averaging 20 percent (or up to 45 percent for moderate income homeowners) (9) of project costs, in addition to utility rebates, plus access to exclusive low-interest financing.
Concern about project coordination and verification.
CEC works closely with homeowners to make the energy efficiency upgrade process as easy as possible. CEC compiles audit recommendations into a scope of work for contractor use, assists with getting bids, provides project documents, and conducts third party quality assurance on all projects.
Solving the climate crisis will require all hands on deck using a variety of strategies and approaches. One place to start might just be your home.
To request a Community Energy Challenge energy audit or to learn more about the program, visit www.communityenergychallenge.org or call 360-676-6099 x185.
1. Amory B. Lovins. “The Negawatt Revolution,” Across the Board, Vol. XXVII No. 9, September 1990, pp. 21-22.
2. International Energy Agency (IEA). Energy Efficiency 2018, https://www.iea.org/reports/energy-efficiency-2018#key-findings.
3. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Halfway There: Energy Efficiency Can Cut Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Half by 2050, https://www.aceee.org/press/2019/09/energy-efficiency-can-slash.
4. Washington State Legislature. HB 1257 (2019), p. 1, http://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2019-20/Pdf/Bills/Session%20Laws/House/1257-S3.SL.pdf?q=20200211133552.
5. Washington State Legislature. HB 1257 (2019), p. 2, http://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2019-20/Pdf/Bills/Session%20Laws/House/1257-S3.SL.pdf?q=20200211133552.
6. City of Bellingham (WA). Climate Action Task Force Final Report, pp.16-25, https://www.cob.org/Documents/council/Climate%20Action%20TF/Climate%20Task%20Force%20FINAL%20Report%2012_2_19.pdf.
7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/report-environment/indoor-air-quality#note1.
8. E4The Future. Occupant Health Benefits of Residential Energy Efficiency, https://e4thefuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Occupant-Health-Benefits-Residential-EE.pdf.
9. Income qualifications are based on annual gross income and household size. For example, a household of four with a gross annual income of between $55,061 and $70,813 would qualify as moderate income and be eligible for the higher 45 percent incentive. The same size household with income below that range may qualify for Opportunity Council’s free weatherization services.
Mark Schofield serves as the Community Energy Challenge Manager at the Opportunity Council. In 2010, Mark and his spouse moved into an old, leaky, poorly insulated home in Bellingham. Since participating in the CEC and getting the home weatherized, they’ve enjoyed vastly improved comfort and low energy bills.