A Cheaper Way to Save

What would you rather do, spend billions of dollars to build a new nuclear power plant and deal with its radioactive waste for thousands of years or install double pane or triple pane windows and extra insulation in order to save money and power during your lifetime?

Energy and Efficiency Conservation Expert Elizabeth Chant joined Fairewinds Energy Education chief engineer Arnie Gundersen, to inform Fairewinds’ viewers of A Cheaper Way to Save. Employed as a principal consultant for Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), Elizabeth has worked in the energy industry for 20 years.  In this video, Elizabeth Chant helps Fairewinds' viewers understand how energy efficiency coupled with investment incentives can help to change the energy paradigm around the US. VEIC’s mission of reducing energy costs for consumers, particularly low-income consumers and the entities that help them, has not changed since its inception 30-years ago.

Utilities are realizing that they need to shift their energy efficiency focus from commercial businesses and remodeling high end homes to low income groups and our country’s stock of older buildings and houses.

Elizabeth noted that conservation is an attitude: it's turning off all the lights before leaving the home. Meanwhile, energy efficiency is making sure you invest in smart energy using devices, like energy smart washers and dryers. Choosing to rehab an older home with double or triple pane windows is a cheaper way to save on energy costs in the long run that lasts for years to come. As Elizabeth lays it all out for us, we also learn that being energy efficient creates more green jobs and why conservation of energy is a smart national trend.




AG: Hi. I’m Arnie Gundersen from Fairewinds. And today we have a really special guest with us. We have Elizabeth Chant. Elizabeth is an energy efficiency and conservation expert, and she works for Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. So welcome, Elizabeth.

EC: Thank you.

AG: Can you tell us what VEIC is?

EC: Vermont Energy Investment Corporation – VEIC – is a 29-year-old non-profit organization founded specifically to reduce the environmental and economic costs of energy use. I love it that our mission has not changed one word in 30 years. Our founders got it that right.

AG: That’s really cool, because we got the environment and the money in the same sentence.

EC: Exactly. And investment is our middle name. We do focus on the economics of energy efficiency and conservation.

AG: So what do you do there?

EC: I am a principle consultant. I’ve been around long enough that somehow they seem to think I know a lot. I focus specifically on the energy efficiency and conservation programs for low income people and multi-family buildings. This is an area that’s been growing in interest in the last few years as those who run utility programs, public benefit programs and the like realize that we’ve been focusing a lot of our attention on commercial, industrial, institutional and single-family residential. But there is a huge part of the U.S. population that lives in multi-family buildings, and we have not been adequately addressing their needs.

AG: It’s interesting because we always talk about these McMansions and how they can be LED certified, high efficiency McMansion. But in the process, we really forget that most of the housing stock is old homes, which is really an area you’re focused on. So we’ve got energy conservation and energy efficiency. And I think they’re two sides of the same coin, but can you explain the difference?

EC: They actually are different. And I always like to specify what the difference is. Conservation really focuses on behavior. It says I want to reduce my use. And I’m going to change my behavior. I’m going to turn down the thermostat; I’m going to turn down the water heater. I’ll change my behavior in order to reduce my energy use. Energy efficiency, on the other hand, really focuses on that efficiency concept, where it says I want the same output, I want the same light level, but I want to use less electricity to get that light level. So it’s more efficient lighting, more efficient heating systems, using less energy to get the same level of comfort, same level of light, same level of industrial production.

AG: (3:03) So when you tell your kids to turn the lights out when they leave a room, that’s energy conservation. But when you buy a better refrigerator that has the same size but it still produces – you get less BTU use out of it – that’s energy efficiency. (EC: Exactly.) Okay. So when I think about energy savings, this R value thing comes to mind. And I realize that’s only part of the picture, but when you insulate something, there’s this thing called R value that has to do with how energy gets transferred through the wall. Can you explain what R value is?

EC: R actually stands for resistance. And it’s value of thermal resistance. And I’m not an engineer. There are thermal engineers who study this and measure the rate of heat loss through a wall system, for example. And you’ve got different materials making up that wall system. You might have the shingles on the outside of the wall and them some sheathing. Then you have your insulation; and then you have your interior surfaces. Well, all of that together, each of those components, has an R value. What you want to do is maximize your R value, especially if you’re in an area that is not a moderate climate; if you’re in a very cold zone or a very hot zone where your need for energy increases because it’s really cold or it’s really hot out.

AG: Okay. So big R is good. That means that you’ve got either very thick walls or very efficient walls. And low R is bad. EC: Exactly. When you’re looking at different systems, and there are norms for different R values in different areas. In Vermont, an example, what we’re trying to see in new home construction is at least an R 60 in the attic. Now back when efficiency and conservation came into vogue in the 70’s, we were lucky to see or say, oh, could you increase your R value to R6, R11, R19. Now we’re looking in the attic to try to get R60. High thermal resistance. Keep that heat from going out the top of the building. And then in walls, we’re looking for an R 40. This is in Vermont. Different geographic and climate areas will have different norms. And for the foundation and basement insulation, we’re looking for R20.

AG: Wow. So that would also apply, though, in a real hot area, right? Because you either want to keep the hot out or keep the warm in. So let me tell you a story. Our daughter, Elida, lives in Florida. And she’s in an old condo. It’s probably 40 years old. And when you walk by the glass, which is south facing, you can feel the heat. And I touch the glass, and it’s single-pane, south-facing glass. I was at her doctor’s office the other day and the same thing happened where he’s got single-pain, south-facing glass. The place looks like it’s brand new. I think that’s barbaric to have single-pain glass. What’s the R value of single-pane glass?

EC: I don’t know the exact R value of single-pane glass but I know it’s too low. In Vermont, actually, we’re going for triple pane glass. And what you’re looking – actually windows are not measured by R value. The inverse of R value is a U value. And when you go out on the market to buy windows, what you’re actually looking for is the U value and you’re looking for a low U value rather than a high U value. A low U value is a much better window than a high U value window.

AG: (6:40) But you can’t just make the glass thicker. You actually have to put a pane with an air gap and a pane with an air gap.

EC: It generally works best because that air gap actually provides additional resistance for the thermal transfer.

AG: So at our daughter’s condo, when she turns the air conditioning on, the water builds up on the outside of the glass. So essentially, she’s taking moisture from the Florida air and condensing it on her window. That doesn’t sound like a very good thing.

EC: Exactly. Definitely not a good use of energy. With every drop that changes from vapor to moisture, there is a BTU transfer that’s going on – an instant transfer, as the water vapor changes to water or to ice. There’s a release or a take-up of energy – terrible use of energy.

AG: So it’s almost like she has a hole in the wall.

EC: Exactly. And she’s basically dehumidifying the Florida outdoors. Not a great use of her air conditioning dollars.

AG: We have a window at our house that has a single pane window on it. And of course we get the moisture buildup on the inside of the window in the winter here in Vermont. It’s exactly the opposite.

EC: Exactly the opposite, but there’s an important difference when it’s on the interior, that it may not actually be the thermal value of the window. It may be indicative that you have too much moisture in the house. So you need to pay attention to both things; that you could actually have very good windows that start to build up moisture because the relative humidity in the house has gone too high. And that’s not good for the indoor occupants or the building. So it’s something to pay attention to.

AG: Well, the white cat that starts this movie never gets zapped when we pet her, so there’s no static electricity. So we don’t have a dry house. So in Florida, they were talking about four nuclear plants. And each nuclear plant is 10 billion dollars. Yet everywhere I go, to strip mall after strip mall, I see single-pane windows. So I question if you – if we gave Elizabeth Chant 10 billion dollars, would you spend it building a single power plant, or would you spend it on energy conservation.

EC: (9:01) At VEIC, we would focus on energy efficiency, because it has been shown again and again and again through documentation that I don’t even begin to understand sometimes, that the cheapest kilowatt hour is the one we don’t use. And here in Vermont where we have very state of the art programming and electric energy efficiency, we actually produce energy savings at half the avoided cost of what it would take for the grid to bring it into the house. So Efficiency Vermont basically is providing energy savings to Vermonters at about 4 cents a kilowatt hour, where generating that energy would take 8 cents a kilowatt hour.

AG: Wow, that’s breathtaking. So essentially, you’re replacing two nuclear plants with that 10 billion that you would have spent to build one, if you went around and properly insulated housing stock.

EC: Exactly. There’s lots of uses. Actually, again, here in Vermont where we’ve looked at not just our electric usage that would come from something like a nuclear power plant or renewable sources or wherever it is generated, but we’ve looked at our thermal needs as well. And with some look at the building stock, it was determined that – this was about 3 or 4 years ago – but it would take about 800 million dollars investment in efficiency to bring the building stock of Vermont to deep, deep energy reductions. So that would be the start of those 10 billion dollars – the start of what I would use them for.

AG: Wow, that’s a breathtaking change. And of course, then you get all the environmental advantages of carbon reduction without building a new power plant. (EC: Exactly) So now let’s look at the old housing stock anywhere in the country. It could be a major city; it could be here in Vermont. Old housing stock is usually rental housing, is usually – it’s certainly not the McMansion that someone has the thick walls in. Lower income people are living in those. What can a renter do in a situation like that to either put some heat on the landlord to change things or to do it themselves? How can a renter change their profile?

EC: So the needs of renters are unique. There’s a thing in the industry we call the split incentive problem. If a renter is paying their energy bills, then the property owner really doesn’t have an economic incentive to invest in energy efficiency. Now the renter may not have an economic incentive, either, because they may not be there very long. If they’re only expecting to be there for 2 or 3 years, then talking to that renter about a payback of 7, 8, 9 years is not going to make economic sense for them. Plus they may not be able to change the building. Generally you can’t go in as a renter and change the heating system. So renters can do some things. Number one, they should always contact their local utility and find out what sorts of programs and rebates are available. Utilities very often have help for renters. Now it may be simple things like changing our light bulbs, going to compact fluorescents or LED’s, reducing the electric load there. It may be using power strips. If you have a computer set up with a monitor and a printer and a variety of devices, or you have an entertainment center. Entertainment centers are like little energy vampires. So putting an advanced power strip on something like that, so if you turn one thing off, the whole system goes off. Maybe not your DVR because everybody likes to keep what they’ve programmed in intact, but there’s even a smart plug that stays going for those things that you don’t want to turn off.

AG: So even when things are turned off, they’re still sucking juice.

EC: Oh, yes. There’s a thing in the industry we actually call vampire load now, that we love for our televisions to come on like that. We love for our computers to come on like that. There’s an energy cost for that. The energy cost is your television actually sits there much of the time drawing almost as much energy as it uses when it’s on. Yeah. So we’ve seen energy reductions in entertainment centers that are like – oh, my gosh, you can save that much? – yeah, you can. And if you think of an entertainment center, where it’s off for 12 hours of the day, that can be a lot of savings.

AG: So why aren’t the manufacturers installing that directly into the set when you buy it?

EC: Because it has to do with the other peripheral devices that you’re using. So it’s a matter of turning everything off with one switch because you may have a variety of devices all plugged in.

AG: So let’s get back to the housing stock. This aging housing stock owned by a landlord. So he has no incentive to upgrade the stock because he’s not paying the electric bill (EC: Or she)

AG: Or she. And the person living in the place can’t afford or won’t be there long enough to see the payback or whatever. That’s kind of depressing. You essentially have to wait for the housing stock to burn down before you can replace it. Is there an end of the rainbow where there’s a pot of gold here?

EC: Another option that cities and states have looked at is using the time of sale ordinance. Burlington, Vermont, was actually very leading edge about a decade ago when the implemented a time-of-sale ordinance that said when a rental property changes hands, it needs to go through an energy audit and potentially energy upgrades at the time of sale. Now that’s a really good point because there’s financing available. And it’s important when jurisdictions to implement time of sale ordinances that they make sure that the supports are in place that a property owner can find someone to do a comprehensive audit and identify what the economically efficient upgrades are.

AG: You know, I’ve seen that, too, in fire code. When you sell a house, it has to be modified to better smoke detectors and things like that. So it’s not unique to energy conservation to have a – at the transfer of the property, the new owner is required to upgrade.

EC: Exactly. It makes sense, because financing is generally available then. And if you’re doing mortgage financing, you’re spreading that investment over a 20, 30, 40 year payback depending if you’re residential or commercial. And it has a pretty small bite.

AG: So the one thing I’ve seen also are people putting mylar over their windows – plexiglass over their windows, to essentially give them another window. Is that a good idea?

EC: It can be a good idea. It really depends on the individual house. The problem is it can result in moisture buildup. And again, that’s something you have to be really careful as you tighten a house that you don’t tighten it to the point that you’re creating hazards for the occupants or degrading the building. So as long as one pays attention to those moisture issues. I have a sister in central Vermont, she’s renting a house, and that was actually something she did to make her family more comfortable this winter.

AG: My father was a carpenter – this was 50 years ago- and he always said, a house has to breathe. (EC: They do) He was not an energy efficiency expert but he understood that in order to keep a house structurally stable in the long haul, it had to get rid of its moisture. So I guess that’s what you’re saying; there’s always that risk.

EC: Exactly. And what we say now is build tight and ventilate. And same with retrofits. Yes, tighten up the house. That’s the best way to save energy. But then ventilate it properly. And you may use heat recovery. So that as you ventilate the heat out, the heat exchange is going on, so you’re saving some of that heat. But actually building it tight and ventilating also has health benefits, because one thing about the old houses that were build was we were never quite sure where the air coming in was coming from. Very often it was coming from down below, soil gases, radon, etc., were coming into the house and then going out with the filtrated air. So it’s important, actually, yes, build it tight, ventilate; but know where your air is coming from.

AG: I have a Fairewinds story to tell you. About 3 years ago, after Fukushima, one of our listeners bought a radiation detector and went through his filter on his furnace and put the radiation detector against it and the detector went nuts. And so they sent us an email and we said, look, take the filter, put it in a bag and let it stay for 5 days and do it again. And he said, there’s nothing there. I said, thank God you got the radiation detector. But it’s not about Fukushima. You’ve got radon leaking into your building and you’ve got to get rid of that. And so he was actually very thankful because he had very high levels of radon gas in his house because he built a tight house. And a tight house is not a healthy house if there’s radon leaking in. It’s interesting how the Fukushima disaster caused this one person to buy a radiation detector which then he realized, oh, my God, my house is highly radioactive.

EC: (18:56) And radon is something that in certain geographic areas, is much more prevalent than in others. So here in Vermont, we have a lot of geological formation which means we have generally higher radon exposures than other areas of the country. But again, it’s important to know where that indoor air is coming from.

AG: The last question I’d like to ask you is the issue of green energy and women working in green energy fields. And it’s exciting to have you here because you know so much. Can you talk about career opportunities for women in the energy fields?

EC: Absolutely. It is a great area of growth in the industry. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy conservation are all growing and create lots of opportunity. The job creation aspect of energy efficiency and renewable energy is interesting and it’s something that’s getting more attention in energy efficiency programming. Vermont Energy Investment Corporation actually runs the DC Sustainable Energy utility where the city government of DC has said, we want you to create jobs. That’s part of what we want you to do for our local residents, because they have high numbers of low income people. And so we work with – in DC we work with local job training centers that work with disadvantaged populations or nontraditional populations to bring everybody into the field. Now I’ve been in the field a long time – 20 years – and when I started, I was very often the only lady on the job site. And I love it now when I go out. There’s lots of women in the industry; everything from installer to engineer to consultant.

AG: Gosh, that’s exciting. Is there any good websites that you can refer us to? Obviously, VEIC must have a good website, but are there any good websites you can refer the listeners to so we can learn more about this?

EC: VEIC.org definitely. In your state, generally there is a public service department or public service board or public utility commission. And there’s often information about utility programs and other energy efficiency programs. Also check, as I said earlier, check with your local utility, because very often there are energy efficiency programs and job opportunities in the field.

AG: Thank you very much. I learned a lot. I always learn a lot when I talk to you, but thank you very much.

EC: Thank you, Arnie. It’s been a pleasure being here.