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Low-Cost Energy Efficiency Goes Block-to-Block

February 20, 2010 - 6:21pm

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An innovative pilot program in Minneapolis, Minnesota, focuses on rallying whole communities around energy efficiency, one neighborhood at a time. Through the program, area residents cash in on a home energy-efficiency upgrade that saves them roughly $130 on their annual energy bill.

All they have to contribute is a little time and a small initial payment.

“The most effective way to get people involved is for people to tell each other, neighbor to neighbor,” says Lola Schoenrich, who signed up after reading about the program in her neighborhood newsletter. She even volunteered to go door-to-door on her block handing out registration materials and talked to about two thirds of her neighbors.

The program is administered by the Center for Energy and the Environment (CEE), a local non-profit. After attending a free energy-efficiency workshop put on by the group and paying $20, qualified participants receive a home visit by two qualified energy technicians. The crew installs up to $400 worth of efficiency items such as, compact fluorescent light bulbs, programmable thermostats, low flow showerheads, faucet aerators and pipe wrap. Crews perform a blower door test to measure air leaks and use their findings to suggest upgrades, including attic air sealing and insulation. Working with a group of pre-qualified contractors, crews are able to provide estimates on the spot, as well as information about financing and rebates.

The initial workshop gives homeowners a better sense of the ways the home uses or loses energy through the building envelope – or air seal of the home – the heating and cooling systems, appliances and phantom load – appliances that use energy even when they’re turned off. It also offers them easy ways to save energy by doing simple things like turning off lights and lowering the temperature of their hot water heater.

Leaders of the program aim to help the community become more energy efficient through technology while educating homeowners how to make better energy choices. “We’re trying to teach people that energy efficiency isn’t about being cold and trapped alone in the dark,” says Judy Thommes, marketing manager at CEE. “You need that educational component. People really respond to the training and want to know more about what they can do.”

One of Lola Schoenrich’s neighbors who recently got a programmable thermostat installed approached her to talk about how best to use it. “She’s thinking about energy in a way that she wasn’t thinking about it before,” Lola says.

The program also gives residents data specific to their personal energy use. “They gave you a sheet that showed your plot of energy usage next to the plots of other people in houses like yours, to see how they compared,” Lola says.

Program partners include the Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund, the City of Minneapolis and local utilities Xcel Energy Inc. and CenterPoint Energy, which provide the labor costs for the CEE staff that carry out the program. The effort helps the utilities meet their energy efficiency mandates. CEE and partners have already conducted visits at more than 500 homes. CEE is using $705,000 in Recovery Act funding from Minneapolis to support the program and plans to serve 4,000 homes over the next two years.

And by using a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach, CEE saves time and fuel, which makes them a more efficient organization. “We’re about doing the little things that you can do,” Judy says. “Little things add up to big things.”

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