Energy Efficiency: Renewable Energy's Less Cool Cousin

>> Monday, March 23, 2009

At the Cool Cities meeting I attended a few months ago, Marjorie Meares of Mathis Consulting Company described the immense energy impact that is possible through a home retrofit.

She related that a typical new nuclear power plant costs $20 billion and has 2,200 MW of generation capacity. She postulated that the same amount of money could be spent to retrofit existing homes to make them more energy efficient. If $5,000 were spent on each home, four million homes could be made more efficient, reducing the energy requirements of each home by 1kW, or 4000 MW for all four million homes.

In other words, the energy efficiency retrofits would save twice as much energy as a new nuclear power plant could produce.

A home energy retrofit is safer than building new nuclear plants, more sustainable than building new coal-fired plants, and cheaper than installing solar panels or wind turbines. And we can do it now, without any new technology or legislation holding us back.

I think the reason energy efficiency doesn't get its fair share of publicity compared to renewables, is that it doesn't seem as cool. Energy efficiency is like the uncool cousin of renewable energy - hidden in the shadow of renewables' sparkly newness.

But for the average person, energy efficiency is actually possible, while installing solar panels on your roof is probably not.

When embarking on an energy efficiency improvement project, you have three possible starting points, depending on your budget and home type.

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audit

  • Cost: Free
  • Good for:
    1. People with small budgets
    2. Apartment dwellers/Renters
    3. Owners of a fairly new and well-built home
  • Process: Walk-through your home looking for air leaks and places that are improperly sealed or insulated. Add caulking, weather-stripping, and insulation. Replace high-watt bulbs with lower watt bulbs or compact fluorescent lightbulbs, a poorly performing heating and cooling system with a more efficient one, and old appliances with Energy Star rated appliances.
  • Downside: Unless you have a strong knowledge of energy efficiency and home building, your DIY audit will be minimally effective, but it's a good place to start.
  • For more information: Find a detailed list of suggestions at the U.S. Department of Energy site.

Online Energy Audit

  • Cost: Free
  • Good for:
    1. People with small budgets
    2. Apartment dwellers/Renters
    3. Owners of a fairly new and well-built home
  • Process: Free online energy audits are offered by many power companies. They ask for information about your home and combine it with your energy usage history to create an energy profile with suggestions for improvements.
  • Downside: Without a home visit and walk-through, an online audit can only provide limited information and generic suggestions. But if you combine it with a DIY audit, you can get a pretty good idea of where to start.
  • For more information: Visit your power company's website for details.

Professional Home Audit
  • Cost: $200-$400, or more
  • Good for:
    1. People with old or poorly built homes
    2. Anyone interested in a detailed consult and plan
  • Process: An energy auditor will do a room-by-room examination of your home, including a blower door test and a thermographic scan. Following the tests, most auditors will provide you with an in-depth plan for improving your home's efficiency and will help you prioritize your improvements.
  • Downside: The cost, but the savings from improved energy efficiency should offset the cost of the audit.
  • For more information: You can find an auditor in the Residential Energy Services Network, but to ensure a quality job, it's best to find an auditor by referral.

A typical home retrofit can shave as much as 30% off your energy bill, so decide which energy audit option works best for you and start saving money!

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