Energy Efficiency Possible for Everyone – by Charles Balcom
Ever watch a television show that motivates you to act? Usually just small things here or there or something to pass the time. Ever start your own company as a result? Andy Holzhauser did, and he was only 30.
After watching a PBS documentary about the Cambridge, Mass. Energy Alliance in April 2008, Holzhauser started his own company in 2009, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance. The show featured a study on a family-owned Laundromat going through an energy assessment, investing in more efficient materials, how much they saved and the importance of driving demand through a grassroots community fashion. This perked his interest to develop a similarly structured program with local adaptations. He met with 75 individuals over an eight month period to determine two important factors: Make sure something like this did not already exist, not wanting to reinvent the wheel, and to see whether or not the individuals would help him with this goal of energy efficient conversions. “A big credit goes to the city and region because leadership is accessible to meet on new business ideas and to develop those new ideas,” says Holzhauser, the executive director of the GCEA. In 2010, it was one of just 25 organizations nationwide to be awarded a $17 million “Better Buildings” grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The conversion process begins when the GCEA sets the homeowner up with a certified contractor to do an energy assessment for $50. The assessment identifies potential areas for improvements. “We look at every system in the house and how they operate together,” says Jeremy Begley, owner and president of the contracting company, Cincinnati Energy Solutions. “It’s based on building science not just shooting in the dark, but actually looking at different scientific tests.” His contracting company was actually the first approved contractor of the GCEA. “We’re the first company with a home performance contracting model, which is assessment based contracting to figure out what’s going to work best for the customer,” says Begley. While other companies may focus on one aspect such as windows or furnace installation, Cincinnati Energy Solutions specializes in all aspects.
The assessment is not only to identify energy usage problems, but also serve as an opportunity to educate the homeowner on how to reduce overall energy usage and save money on energy bills. “It gives homeowners a very visual sense for what is happening in their home,” says Holzhauser. “Without that very visual sense, homeowners don’t have access to the information they need to make an investment.”
The three most-common household energy wasters are attic insulation, air infiltration, and duct ceiling issues. Fixing any of these issues can immediately make homes more comfortable. Fixes can be as simple as blowing more insulation into an attic, filling cracks in walls and ceilings with “goo” to stop drafts, or fixing poorly connected ducts.
A complete energy conversion in a home can range anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000. “As you go up the totem pole in terms of level of investment generally that leads to longer-term paybacks, but again gives folks a comprehensive view as to the investment they can make,” says Holzhauser. The more investment now, the more money it saves later. A complete conversion can take about seven years for the investment to pay off for the homeowner, although an impact can be seen immediately with a lower energy bill. A $4,000 project can see a positive payback in two to three years, a simple attic insulation costing $1,000 can have a payback in less than a year.
“People are staying in their homes longer given the recession and the uncertainty of the market,” says Holzhauser. “That’s actually a good thing for us.” Homeowner longevity allows the GCEA to help homeowners save money and help increase their current savings and future property values.
Ohio’s building codes standards for new homes have loosened up as opposed to have gotten stricter in terms of energy efficiency in the past 5 years, according to Holzhauser. Houses built today at code minimums offer homeowners huge opportunities to make their homes more energy efficient, no matter how old or new the house may be.
The GCEA works to connect with the local community for awareness and education. This past year, they held a contest for participants to write an essay about energy reduction and why it is important in their lives. The “Green Your Home” contest winner won a green home makeover, which consisted of a $9,000 energy upgrade. They also held neighborhood energy canvasses in which they trained volunteers to visit 700-800 homes on a Saturday, deliver information about the program and try to get homeowners to sign up for an assessment.
“We organize phone blitzes, going through our original 700 contacts and help move them from the ‘interested phase’ all the way through ‘completion phase,’” says Lilah Glick, marketing and community outreach director for the GCEA. Their most recent strategy was sending out 20,000 postcards last month letting homeowners know about the programs and services available. She had been working with climate and energy change at a legislative level helping to pass bills, but she wanted to do more. “I saw a need to get boots on the ground and give assistance at the local level,” says Glick. “It’s the lowest cost, easiest solution to help homeowners reduce their energy use, reduce pollution and reduce negative health effects.”
“Some people are motivated to do an energy audit by saving money,” says Holzhauser. “Some people may not even care so much about saving money, but they really do believe and see it as a way to improve the environment, as a way to reduce carbon emissions, as a way to preserve our environment for future generations.”