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Energy Efficiency Investment Slow to Catch On

Energy Audit by graysky.jpg
Flikr Creative Commons / GraySky

A new report out from the New Hampshire Energy and Climate Collaborative finds that NH may not be doing enough to make homes more energy efficient.

Three years ago Governor John Lynch put forth his climate action plan, a roadmap for how to reduce the states carbon emissions. Number one on the list of strategies: maximize energy efficiency in buildings. But getting homeowners to invest in efficiency has been harder than policymakers had hoped.

It finds that New Hampshire is way behind where policy makers had hoped it would be in terms of making homes cheaper to heat or cool. That doesn’t quite line up with what Governor Lynch has been saying for the past few years, like in his 2009 inaugural address.

Lynch: first we should expand our home weatherization program. This will help put people, including carpenters, plumbers and electricians to work, and help families cut their energy costs. The green jobs initiative will help create jobs for our people now, and make the New Hampshire economy stronger for the future.

Later in that same year, the Climate Change Task force that Lynch created called for renovating of 30,000 homes a year. According to the plan, after 17 years New Hampshire’s aging housing stock would be spruced up use 60% less energy for heating, cooling, and lighting.

But the report shows that three years in, things haven’t been going according to plan. Not only has NH not gotten anywhere near the 30,000 homes a year goal, but the houses that have been winterized haven’t done the deep expensive changes hoped for. Instead they are only reducing energy consumption by around 20-25 percent.

The data on how many homes have actually been renovated isn’t great. But if you ask around, plenty of people in the business are discouraged.

You hear it from energy auditors, like Shad Lawton from the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative.

Lawton: It’s easy to get people interested, it’s not as easy to get them to convert. They have to come up with 50% of the money for their improvement and that’s a hard sell right now.

And you hear it from the utilities, like National Grid who had to give back $2.7 million dollars that was slated to be given to natural gas customers for efficiency retrofits.

National Grid spokesman, David Graves, says even though the program is well publicized, homeowners left the money on the table.

Graves: For some reason the New Hampshire customers just have not made the applications.

Jim Lee, a realtor on the seacoast, drives a Prius and has paid for insulation and a new furnace in his own home, but he’s not surprised to hear that many other homeowners haven’t followed suit.

He says it just doesn’t pay off in the real estate market.

Lee: If you’re fixing to sell your house based on my experience selling houses for 30 years, you’re just wasting your money spending much of anything on energy efficient things, cause buyers just aren’t willing to pay for it.

Lee says the only way to get your money back on energy is to stay in one place and enjoy your low utility bills.

So basically, the way the housing market is now, anyone who’s not sure how long they’ll be in their house is very unlikely to invest in energy efficiency.

Instead, Lee says he advises homeowners to spend money on the sexy, shiny, pretty things that make a home sell for more money: granite counter tops instead of attic air sealing.

Lee: paint’s probably the best bang for your buck there is, if you spend $1 for a gallon of paint you can probably get $5 back for that dollar.

This is only one of the stumbling blocks that energy efficiency faces. There are others: many contractors aren’t trained to insulate and air-seal, so they don’t do very good work, and many banks are hesitant to finance the work.

But one could argue that if there were stronger demand for these things, the supply side would work itself out. One of the authors of the Climate Action Plan study – Professor Cameron Wake – says getting the word out about the savings up for grabs in a tight, well-insulated home, is paramount.

Wake: I think as humans we are creatures of immediate feedback and immediate payback, so it’s far more important to get the number of bedrooms that you need or the extra bathroom or the granite countertop than it is to get energy efficiency.

And there are efforts underway to do just that. For example, one idea being talked about at the state Office of Energy and Planning is to roll out an optional efficiency sticker for homesellers – like the Miles per Gallon stickers on new cars.

The goal is to give people selling their homes something they can point to – not unlike a granite counter top – that will let them say, “this is why you should pay more.”

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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