Environment Illinois: Time to plug the leak and lower energy costs

By Bruce Ratain
Field Associate, Environment Illinois

If you had a leaky roof that let rainwater in, I’m sure you’d fix it.

But here’s a surprise…your home most likely is leaking—only it’s a leak that’s harder to detect. It’s a leak in the form of wasted energy from inefficient appliances, poor insulation, and bad design. You can feel its impact by standing close to an inefficient window on a cold day. You can see it when you read your exorbitant energy bill.

Energy “leaks” don’t just waste your money. They also add to Illinois’ energy demand, the majority of which is met by burning coal or other fossil fuels, contributing to global warming and air pollution, the causes of asthma and heart attacks.

But here’s the good news: Stopping these leaks doesn’t cost any money—in the long term, it more than pays for itself. Indeed, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, which since 1976 has retrofitted low-income homes for increased energy efficiency, returns almost three times the money invested—in new jobs and reduced energy bills.

Implementing a suite of energy efficiency policies could save American families more than $80 billion annually on their energy bills by 2050, according to an Environment Illinois analysis, and could prevent the emission of almost 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution—more than Germany’s total annual emission.

For Illinoisans, in 2050, those policies could save a family of four nearly $2,000 each year, while saving Illinois businesses $1,000 per worker.

Increasing energy efficiency also creates green jobs. According to the Center for American Progress, investments in energy efficiency retrofits for existing buildings generates 220 percent more jobs than similar investments in oil production. Energy efficiency jobs tend to be high paying and, unlike oil production jobs, they can’t be outsourced and can be created in all 50 states.

Further, energy efficiency is easy to achieve. In 2006, Habitat for Humanity set out to build a high-efficiency home on a low budget in Wheat Ridge, Colo. In the end, the home was so efficient, the solar panel on the roof generated more power than the entire house consumed. If Habitat for Humanity can do it, building homes with volunteer labor, for low-income families, then large developers and governments certainly can.

But if energy efficiency has such clear benefits, why are most of our homes still leaking energy?

First, developers lack the incentive to construct highl- efficient homes because it’s the eventual homeowners—not home builders—who benefit from energy efficiency’s monthly payoff on utility bills. It’s easier for the builder to just meet the minimum building code. Second, while increased efficiency ultimately more than pays for itself, low-income homeowners cannot always afford the upfront cost.

Fortunately, commonsense public policy can correct both of those market imperfections.

First, we can implement stronger energy efficiency standards for new buildings. One study found that Illinois houses built under 2006’s then-current energy-efficient building code saved their owners more than $472 per year. In 2009, Environment Illinois helped pass a bill to adopt an Illinois-wide building code that exceeds the energy savings of the 2006 code by up to 15 percent. Illinois should continue to adopt strong energy efficiency requirements for new buildings until, by 2030, all new buildings are zero-net energy (meaning they generate more energy on-site than they consume). Imagine it: no energy bills.

Second, government incentives and innovative financing systems can help existing buildings’ owners overcome the upfront cost of energy efficiency retrofits. Government can save tax dollars by funding retrofit programs. Portland, Ore., for example, has been retrofitting 120 low-income homes per year, which will, by 2030, save $2.5 million in tax dollars. This summer, as the Senate debates the federal clean energy bill, Illinois Senators Richard Durbin (D) and Roland Burris (D) should insist that it include strong incentives and substantial funding for efficiency improvements so we can build toward a 30 percent improvement in existing buildings’ energy efficiency by 2030.

Moving toward these targets will jump-start Illinois’ economy, lower energy costs, create jobs, increase our energy security, and reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. It’s time to plug the leak.

Bruce Ratain, field associate for Environment Illinois, can be reached at bruce.ratain@gmail.com.

From the July 21-27, 2010 issue