Tag Archive for: Energy Solutions Hub

By Mary English

One of the things I love about my profession is the fact that I learn new things regularly. My most recent new learning was inspired by the expression “April through October Houses” during an informative and entertaining radio interview with the host of Cowtown Conversations, Joseph Jackson, on his KKFI 90.1 FM show. He spoke this phrase in reference to homes in Kansas City that may be rented to tenants in the spring, only to have the leases broken when autumn’s chill settles into the air and the homes become too cold to inhabit. 

The topic deserving of Joseph’s surprising reference was easy building performance and home weatherization tips that anyone can handle. In light of my own epiphany about a previously unconsidered perspective, I’d like to expand on a few statements from that interview that we didn’t have time to cover. I feel that knowing these things about the task of making a building more energy efficient would help even the most cash-crunched households achieve warmer homes and better health. 

1 “April through October” conjures thoughts of beautiful spring and fall colors—not to mention nicer weather—sandwiching the summer months of what can be oppressive heat in the Kansas City region. So when Joseph alerted me to an expression that is in among renter vernacular, all I could think was, “If these homes are so uncomfortable that the occupants have to live elsewhere in the winter, they also must be enduring some serious discomfort in June-August as well.” As I’ve been witness to many homes in need of repair and energy upgrades in a former life as a home energy auditor this is not a surprising revelation.

During the interview, we discussed home weatherization and tips for residents that have the money and authority to weatherize. But for renters, the weatherization task gets more difficult since renters don’t own their homes. The problem can be viewed as systemic—renters understand both the discomfort of an extreme indoor temperature and in most cases, the pain of a high utility bill that results when they try to return the home to livable temperatures. If the landlord is not empathetic or receptive to making energy upgrades for their renters? Voila: the April through October House has been enabled by an inequitable system of utilities being paid directly by tenants. 

Ethical and moral considerations aside, if only this class of landlord realized this key truth about building management, the April through October Home would likely evaporate: An efficient home leads to a better bottom line because it keeps renters who want to stay, instead of forcing them out due to unbearable discomfort. Energy efficiency upgrades don’t cost in the long run. They pay landlords back. The National Apartment Association estimates that high turnover can consume up to 9% of gross rental income for larger multi-family residences, so landlords would come out on top, if only their renters could continue living in the buildings.  

For those people reading who do own their homes—and pay their own utility bills—the return on investment for home energy efficiency upgrades is better than most financial products. Plus, we are not even addressing the healthcare costs endured due to medical problems caused by inefficient homes. 

Anyway, if I could wave a magic wand, I’d make all landlords cover the cost of utilities for tenants in their rent. This would incentivize the building owners to actually make improvements on their “April to October” buildings. Then they might want to actually make their properties as efficient as possible to save money, and realize lower turnover rates as well. Happy renters and wealthier properties owners: I’d call that a win-win. 

Mold growth on a windowsill.

Mold growth on a windowsill.

2 Speaking of weatherization, Joseph came prepared to talk about building improvements. In addition to his extensive experience doing his own energy retrofits, he had prepared a well-researched list to share with the program’s listeners. Things like caulking around windows, adding weather-stripping, and sealing the seams of exposed ductwork were all included and endorsed by yours truly. 

One more improvement on the laundry list, though, is adding window weatherization plastic to the interior window frame ahead of the heating season. In the interview, I did not get a chance to say, “If you add plastic to your windows, make sure you remove it in the spring.” This unvoiced sentence has been bothering me since the interview. 

Here is why: If you leave the plastic in place for the summer months, you may be inviting mold and eventually wood rot on any window trim or sill sealed in behind the plastic. (Perhaps you don’t open your windows ever and don’t think about it.)

Dewpoint temperatures

How does this mold and wood rot happen? Well, it has to do with extreme temperature change between the hot and humid summer air outside, and the cool, conditioned air in the house, on the interior side of the plastic. In Kansas City, we get very high humidity which creates a dew point as low as your thermostat setting for a typical central air-conditioned house. That air hits sealed cold plastic around your windows and boom: condensation. Next comes the spores and then the mold growth.

So, remove that window weatherization plastic in the spring for health and durability’s sake.

3

This gets me to our conversation regarding professional energy auditors. The happy news is that there are low-cost audits to be had. In the interview, Joseph mentioned that he had received an energy audit for $35.00 by using Groupon. So I “Googled it” and there are indeed deals for Kansas City residents to get energy audits for that low of a price (or even lower) currently using online coupon services like Groupon.

These deals are advertising use of thermal imaging from one vendor, and another advertises “air leakage” testing. However, it is unclear to me if these deals reflect a product that is a full-scale comprehensive energy audit that includes a blower door test with a detailed infrared scan and carbon monoxide safety testing which is how I define “home energy audit.” To review or explain further, a full-scale home energy audit should take roughly two hours minimum – longer for larger houses – and include:

  • An infiltration test of the whole house using a Blower Door.
  • Thermal imaging once the testing is done with the Blower Door still operating to create a situation where a thermal camera can visually detect air leaks.
  • A natural gas line test; and carbon monoxide testing of all gas-burning appliances.
  • A report that shows images and gives an executive summary of recommendations with an estimated payback should these recommendations be executed by a contractor or homeowner.

Doing a bit more research regarding the market surrounding home energy audits led to me to realize that the industry looks a little differently than when I was regularly conducting energy audits for homeowners and contractors. Gone are the days where a consultant could offer the audit as a stand-alone product as the industry has adjusted to a loss of subsidized incentives. There are companies that do stand-alone auditing still, but most now are offering low or no-cost energy audits as what is called a “loss leader” product. In other words, the company offers audits as a lead into their other services of insulating your attic and walls, for example.

These professionals may be doing a thorough job of auditing your home, but if the end goal is to get you to buy their other products, what do you think their audit reports are going to be concentrating on for their list of to-dos? I am a big proponent of adding insulation, but the safety and blower door testing are important to make sure these upgrades are being done safely and correctly.

To reiterate, the change reflects the loss of subsidies from regional utility programs as well as robust tax breaks on the federal level to help homeowners pay for these services. Hopefully, that will be rectified by the current administration’s proposed Build Back Better program which is currently making its way through Congress and has $500 million set aside for home energy upgrades and contractor training. Homeowners, contractors, and the energy professional industry would be helped immensely by more subsidies, since it’s clear that most folks aren’t interested in paying $300+ out of pocket for a professional consultant to conduct a full-scale home energy audit.

And as I’ve stated multiple times including a previous blog on this website, this is not just about efficiency—this is also related to the health of building occupants. Building efficiency is related to human health. Period. And since America loves to brag about the American Dream of a “home sweet home,” it’s important that our homes are truly shelters from the elements, and safe from indoor pathogens as well.

Though sparse, there are some resources currently. These are:

  • A federal tax credit of up to $500 for energy auditing and to subsidize added insulation, efficient windows, doors and skylights. (Receipts must be shown and it covers a small percentage of the cost incurred.)
  • Community Action Agency that offers weatherization services free of charge for low-income homeowners and renters. They have an application process that requires income and utility bill information. Please follow the link to their website for more information.
  • And for alternative energy generation* a federal tax credit for installing “solar electric property, solar water heaters, geothermal heat pumps, small wind turbines, fuel cell property, and, starting December 31, 2020, qualified biomass fuel property expenditures paid or incurred in taxable years beginning after that date. The applicable percentages are:
    • In the case of property placed in service after December 31, 2019, and before January 1, 2023, 26%.
    • In the case of property placed in service after December 31, 2022, and before January 1, 2024, 22%.”
*Note: I will always argue that building owners must address energy-saving measures first prior to installing alternative energy generation. Otherwise, you’re just subsidizing waste; not to mention generation does not address inefficient attributes impacting your health and comfort.

MEC will be updating this on our website too as Build Back Better and utility companies ramp up more programs to help homeowners pay for upgrades. We are also here for you, renters and tenants, if you need us to answer any questions you may have concerning the efficiency of a building where you live. Please reach out – we’re just a phone call or email away.

 

So, when we talk about someone employed in “clean energy”, what does that cover?  Like “manufacturing”, many things. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines and tracks employment by sector, but it’s not the most user-friendly resource.  So, while BLS notes that there were nearly 6,000 wind turbine service techs employed in May of 2020, it divides them among five different industries, ranging from utility construction to consulting to local government.  Sadly, a BLS plan to categorize and track clean energy jobs begun in 2010 was abandoned in 2013 during a federal budget shutdown, and has never resumed.

More generally, clean energy jobs fall into four broad categories – energy efficiency (home upgrades or commercial building retrofits); renewables (solar, wind, biogas, or geothermal energy); grid and storage (electrical engineering, battery tech, and charging stations); and cleaner vehicles and fuels (hybrid and electric vehicle manufacturing or biofuel production).  Altogether, more than 3.3 million Americans work in one of these fields, and it’s worth noting that energy efficiency alone employed more than twice as many people as all fossil energy sectors combined.

Like nearly everybody else, clean energy workers have taken a hit in this economy.  About 147,000 jobs were eliminated in March, and April totals nearly tripled that.  More than 590,000 jobs in the sector evaporated by April 30th, two months ahead of projections by BW Research.  The same analysts now expect around ¼ of all green energy jobs to be gone by June 30th, some 850,000 in all.

Under the circumstances, this isn’t surprising.  Homeowners are unlikely to invite insulation crews into their homes in the midst of a pandemic.  Financial chaos means that banks are less likely to lend on large-scale clean energy deployments.  Cities facing budgets collapsing under tax shortfalls are going to emphasize essential services before clean energy buildouts.  And utilities are facing tumbling energy demand.  IEA estimates that from February through April, global demand for energy dropped 6%, the equivalent of all of India.  American energy demand is set to drop 9%, according to the same report.

Whatever the course of economic contraction and recovery, there are certain irreducible advantages to jobs in these industries.  To begin with, they tend to be site-specific.  Many renewable energy jobs are unlikely to be outsourced – those building and maintaining a thermal solar plant in Arizona, for example, are going to build and maintain it in that location for its useful life.  The same holds true for energy efficiency professionals – the homes and buildings in the United States aren’t going to offshore themselves.

Many skilled green energy jobs pay relatively well, can boost stressed economies and don’t require four-year degrees.  Wind turbine techs, for example, exemplify this beneficial clustering.  Wind turbines require regular service and maintenance, and wind farms are located largely in rural areas in the Midwest and southern Plains.  Technicians tend to live in smaller cities or towns near these sites, supporting the local tax base.  Median income for a turbine technician in 2019 was $52,910, which could go a long way in Russell County, Kansas or Alliance, Nebraska.  And training for the field takes one or two years, depending on program and specialization. Median income for solar installers was lower, but in 2019 stood at $44,890 per year, and for insulation crews, median income in 2019 was $44,180,

The issue, at least for now, is that the three specific categories mentioned above don’t employ very many Americans – about 75,000 in all in 2018 and 2019, according to BLS.  But broaden the focus, and green energy’s economic becomes clearer – and bigger.  Wind energy’s total economic footprint alone is already substantial.  In 2018, 530 plants in 43 states produced components – blades, nacelles, turbines, gearing and digital control systems. Outsourcing of some of this manufacturing is possible, but given the size and weight of components as turbines grow taller, is likely to remain largely here at home.  Moreover, the Department of Energy estimates as many as 600,000 jobs in all subsectors of wind energy in less than 30 years.

This kind of job generation potential is what makes remaking America’s energy system so important to inclusive economic recovery.  Utilities, states and cities are already beginning to implement plans to change how we generate and distribute energy in a carbon-constrained world.  These efforts have been patchy and slow, and to date unlikely to meet even minimal Paris Agreement standards.  But under the right circumstances, policy changes, like technological changes, can happen quickly.  Emphasizing the very real benefits of more clean energy jobs may help speed that vital process.

So where, as COVID redefines economies and politics, is the renewable energy sector?  What happens over the next few years – to technologies, investments, deployments and incentives – will determine multiple trajectories.  These include the jobs of millions of people, how quickly carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans, and the possibility of stranded assets hampering any rapid, substantive switch from old to new.

If you’re thinking purely in terms of dollars and cents, the latest issue of Forbes has a fascinating article.  A joint study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Imperial College London reviewed returns on energy investments starting in 2009.  Combining German and French stock market data, the past five years showed returns of 178% for renewables and -20.7% for fossil energy.  UK renewable stocks returned over 75%, legacy energy 8.8%.  Here at home, where utility-scale renewable buildouts began later than in Europe, renewable returns were north of 200%, while oil, gas and coal stocks didn’t quite double.  Renewable investments proved more stable over the same periods measured.  But the same article notes that the biggest fossil energy shareholders – pension funds – are reluctant to disinvest from dividend-rich stocks.

Beyond that, an ostensible renewable energy transition is up against multiple countervailing factors – for starters $900 billion or more in potential “stranded assets” of global fossil energy companies.  The oil majors have talked a good game for years now, but the numbers don’t bear out their proclaimed commitments to renewables.  Exxon is now in court for, among other things, bragging on its green energy tech while spending less than ½ of 1% of revenues on renewable energy.  In 2019, BP projected spending between 3% and 8% (at best) of capex on renewables, and in February the company dumped an advertising campaign highlighting renewables.  And so on.

American utilities face the same kinds of stranded asset risks, though only 18% of utility employees view sunk costs in infrastructure as a top worry.  But power plants can be ferociously expensive to build.  Evergy’s Iatan 2 project, which went online nearly 10 years ago, came in at nearly $2 billion, with state-of-the-art environmental retrofits of the Iatan 1 plant adding to costs.  It can take large projects like this decades to pay for themselves; securitizing early retirement of fossil fuel plants can blunt risks to utilities, but so far has only been tried in three states.

Even bigger picture – there’s a substantial inertia built into an energy economy created more than 100 years ago – a vast, complex system that works remarkably well to meet the needs of its customers.  To date, renewables are still a small slice of total US electricity output.  In 2018, natural gas generated about 35% of our electricity, coal about 27%, nuclear a bit over 19% and all renewables, including hydroelectric, not quite 17%, with niche sources making up the rest.

To be clear, renewable energy’s recent eclipse of coal in the US has been remarkable.  In fact, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced the very day this was written that in 2019 consumption of energy produced from renewables passed that produced by coal, the first time per EIA that this has happened since before 1885.  But a decarbonized energy economy is still decades away.  The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that to even approach climate goals, renewables must increase to around 65% of global Total Primary Energy Supply by 2050 – and we’re nowhere close to that yet.  More on all of the above, COVID impacts and the state of play in our next renewable installment.

Tag Archive for: Energy Solutions Hub

October is annually designated as National Energy Awareness Month. The U.S. Department of Energy (US DOE) participates annually with the intent to draw attention to our nation’s electrical grid system and “to highlight the importance of energy to our national prosperity and security.” As the US DOE states, “Energy, our most critical infrastructure, is all but invisible to most, but our focus on continued innovation protects American lives today and ensures better lives tomorrow.”

This year, Metropolitan Energy Center (MEC) will use this truth to draw attention to energy efficiency and how it relates to our infrastructure, including our transportation systems and the built environment. There is indeed innovation happening on a national scale, and it’s occurring quickly. MEC is either hosting, co-hosting, or cross-promoting a number of in-person and virtual events this October to highlight all the ways our nation can modernize the way it uses energy to create a prosperous future for our youth and future generations. Click the links below to learn more about each event and how to participate (more links to come as the suite of events is finalized).

Whether an industry professional or policy maker or technician or a member of the general public, we have at least one event for you. Join us and our members, volunteers and friends during Energy Awareness Month. We’ll celebrate recent achievements and foster accelerated adoptions of energy conservation, renewables and cleaner fuels.

Energy Awareness 2021 Event List:

Native Plant Sale & Drive Electric Week Event at Project Living Proof with Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City Sept. 25
National Drive Electric Week: South Park in Lawrence Sept 25
Lion Electric School Bus Ride and Drive: Lee’s Summit Schools Sept 28
National Drive Electric Week: Driving Electric: Black & Veatch EV Drivers Tell All (Virtual) Sept 29
National Drive Electric Week: Prairie Village Presbyterian Church Sept 29
National Drive Electric Week: Independence Chamber of Commerce    CANCELED Oct. 2
National Drive Electric Week: ICT (Wichita Towne East Square) Oct. 2
National Energy Efficiency Day (Ask Emily for a model Proclamation for your city, business or organization) Oct. 6
Marquee Event: Our Best Buildings Yet: A Forum on Energy Efficiency in the Kansas City Region and Beyond Oct. 7
Virtual Workshop on Diesel Emissions Reduction Funding Opportunities: Midwest Clean Diesel Initiative Oct. 12-14
Webinar: EV Fleet Trends: Advice from the Experts (hosted by Louisiana Clean Fuels Coalition) Oct. 13
Marquee Event Day of EVs (In-Person): Exploring EVs in Municipal Fleets with City of Olathe, Indian Creek Library in Olathe, KS Oct. 19
Marquee Event Day of EVs (Virtual): Electrifying Terminal Trucks: Best Practices and Lessons Learned from Deployments in the Kansas City Region and Beyond Oct. 19
Our Energy Horizon: A Solar, Storage, Electric Vehicle & Transmission Event, Thompson Barn in Lenexa, KS (hosted by Clean Energy Business Council) Oct. 25
Weatherization Day 2021 Oct. 30
Energy Solutions Hub

Date|Time: Mar 15 at 9:30 a.m.

Location: Project Living Proof, 917 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd.

Program update, funding opportunities and status, partnerships, events and meetings

Energy Solutions Hub

Date|Time: May 11th at 9:30 a.m.

Location: Project Living Proof, 917 Emanuel Cleaver Blvd.