Posts Tagged ‘energy efficiency’

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The Gulf oil spill disaster is usually tied to Americans’ insatiable appetite for gasoline to fuel an unsustainable lifestyle.

And while transportation accounts for most of the United States’ petroleum consumption, there are still more than 14 million homes that rely on some type of oil for heating. Retrofitting those houses to run on cleaner fuel and increase their energy efficiency could save as much oil as would be spilled in two Deepwater Horizon disasters a month, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, a non-profit focused on green building.

“Retrofitting our oil-heated homes and commercial buildings to 50 percent savings would save 2 billion barrels of oil by 2030, practically offsetting the amount of oil we could get by drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf,”  the report states. “In addition, home retrofits could save more than double the amount of natural gas that we could produce by drilling the Outer Continental Shelf.”

NRDC points out that the $20 billion BP has set aside for the Gulf cleanup could finance energy efficiency retrofits for every home in Louisiana and Mississippi, cutting homeowners utility bills by 25 percent. The nearly $4 billion BP has spent so far on the cleanup could pay for retrofitting 650,000 homes.

“That could have been spent on U.S.-made insulation, air conditioners, furnaces, water heaters, and other products, as well as the labor to install them,” the report states. “Of course, oil savings from building efficiency pale in comparison to the savings potential of more efficient vehicles, better urban planning, and increasing transportation options, but the magnitude of the savings potential of the building sector illustrates just how short-sighted our focus on drilling has become.”

And while building energy efficiency improvements aren’t cheap, those investments will continue to pay dividends for decades in the form of lower energy bills and reduced demand for fossil fuels.

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photo: Sungevity

I wrote this post for Grist, where it first appeared.

On Tuesday, the Federal Housing Finance Agency effectively shut down an innovative green financing program called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, by restricting the ability of homeowners to take out loans to install solar panels and make other energy efficiency improvements.

Now the United States Treasury Department has piled on. A new Treasury directive tells the nation’s banks how to enforce the FHFA rules. The move could pose new problems for homeowners who have PACE loans, and complicate efforts to get the program back on track.

Homeowners repay PACE loans through an annual assessment on their property taxes. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department told banks that if a homeowner has a home equity line of credit, the amount of money available should be lowered to account for the loan liability. The Treasury also said homeowners could be required to put their PACE payments in an escrow account.

After Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government chartered mortgage finance giants, raised concerns about PACE in May, some lenders declined to refinance mortgages that carried PACE liens.

Owners of commercial properties who hold PACE loans may need to put up additional collateral to back up the loan, according to the Treasury Department letter.

Cisco DeVries, president of Renewable Funding, an Oakland, Calif., company that designs and administers PACE programs for local governments, said he wants to make sure PACE loans for commercial owners won’t be curtailed.

“We believe PACE commercial can go ahead as it has always required lender consent when a commercial mortgage is in place,” he wrote in an email. “We just want to make sure we don’t run into an unexpected problem as we move forward.”

Some municipalities sell bonds to finance energy-efficiency loans for homeowners. But they may find that harder to do under the Treasury Department directive, which warned banks to move cautiously when underwriting such bonds.

I reported in the The New York Times on Tuesday that the Federal Housing Finance Agency had rejected the Obama administration’s offer of a two-year guarantee against any PACE-related mortgage losses Fannie or Freddie might suffer.

Now in a move that PACE proponents say adds insult to injury, the Treasury Department is advising banks to get local governments to insure them against any losses from the program if homeowners default on their mortgages.

Among those not amused by the FHFA action was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The FHFA’s bureaucratic breakdown threatens one of California’s most promising new engines of job creation in this struggling economy,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “FHFA’s action threatens thousands of new sustainable jobs in California, especially in the hard-hit construction industry, while denying homeowners the opportunity to reduce monthly energy costs and add equity to their homes.”

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In my latest Green State column on Grist, I explore new strategies to pay for commercial energy efficiency retrofits:

On the heels of San Francisco’s announcement last week that it plans to spend $150 million greening up homes, comes a new report that studies a slew of other innovative ways to finance energy efficiency improvements for all types of buildings.

It’s no big surprise that the key to ramping up the energy efficiency industry and fostering technological advances is no-money-down financing so building owners can avoid the capital costs of retrofits.  And that’s exactly what the California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF) is working toward.

Energy efficiency “immediately saves money for end-users, improves the bottom line for companies, reduces local exposure to electricity grid outages and offsets the need for new power plants,” wrote the authors of the report from the CalCEF, a non-profit venture capital outfit based in San Francisco. “Yet, efficiency upgrades and their respective financing options are often out of reach for most end-users, as the initial capital cost exceeds near-term savings.”

Yes, you read that right—CalCEF is a non-profit VC, a product of the California energy crisis of 2000-2001—remember Enron?—that resulted in the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric, Northern California’s dominant utility. As part of the bankruptcy settlement, CalCEF was created to accelerate energy innovation and was seeded with $30 million from PG&E.

The best known such program is Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, in which cities float bonds to finance retrofits and homeowners pay back the cost through a surcharge on their property tax bills over 20 years.

While that can work well for middle and upper-middle class homeowners in environmentally conscious communities, PACE is not as useful for commercial buildings, office towers, and industrial sites, whose owners may be solely motivated by the bottom line, according to the CalCEF report.

“High upfront costs are preventing large entities from addressing energy inefficiencies,” says Paul Frankel, the managing director of CalCEF Innovations, the organization’s initiative that focuses on developing green energy financing and policy.

That led CalCEF to investigate possible solutions to the dollar dilemma, some of which are currently being implemented.

One workaround is something called on-bill financing. For instance, San Diego Gas & Electric will finance up to $100,000 in energy efficiency retrofits for commercial customers (and up to $250,000 for school and government buildings). Recipients then pay back the loans through a surcharge on their monthly utility bill.

Best of all, the loans carry zero percent interest, though business customers have to repay them in five years. In the first two years of the program, San Diego Gas & Electric financed 180 retrofits and has another 100 in the queue. Over the next two years, the utility will make $41.5 million available for on-bill retrofits.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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In The New York Times on Friday, I write about environmentalists’ less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the Obama administration’s proposed efficiency standards for water heaters, one of a home’s biggest energy hogs:

Environmentalists have had a lukewarm reaction to the Obama administration’s proposed energy efficiency standards for home water heaters.

The standards, which would take effect in 2015, could save consumers as much as $15.6 billion over 30 years, cut energy consumption and avoid emitting 154 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to the United States Department of Energy.

That’s good but not nearly good enough, said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a Boston-based group backed by energy efficiency advocates and environmental organizations.

“They fall short because they fail to take advantage of the advanced technology where the big savings are,” said Mr. deLaski. “The question is, do you just tweak existing technology or push the market to technologies that get you enormous savings?”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Even in the depths of the downturn, Silicon Valley keeps the tech faith, and these days that faith has a green sheen. So while the news is full of layoffs and cutbacks — even at companies like electric car maker Tesla Motors — the California Clean Tech Open competition Thursday night was handing out $600,000 to a half-dozen startups that hope to be the green tech titans of the future.  For instance, GreenVolts, a 2006 winner, is now building a solar power plant for utility PG&E.

The Clean Tech Open held its first bake-off in the more economically optimistic times of 2006 but bleak days doesn’t appear to have cooled the competition. This year 43 finalists vied for “start-up in a box” packages that include $50,000 in cash and $50,000 worth of business services. The contest is backed by a who’s who of Silicon Valley tech firms (Google (GOOG), Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) ), utilities (PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX), San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) ) and government energy labs. Venture capitalists and other business leaders serve as judges.

Here then are six startups that the judges think point the way to the future:

  • Viridis Earth of San Jose, Calif., has developed a product to retrofit air conditioners to reduce their electricity consumption by 20%.
  • Focal Point Energy, also of San Jose, is developing industrial solar hot water and steam generation systems.
  • ElectraDrive of San Francisco retrofits gasoline-powered cars to run on electricity.
  • BottleStone will produce a substitute for stone and concrete building materials that is 80% recycled glass. The Los Altos Hills, Calif., company claims its production process cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 42% .
  • Power Assure of Santa Clara, Calif., is developing energy efficiency management software for power-hogging data centers.
  • Over the Moon Diapers, another San Francisco startup, makes environmentally friendly diapers.

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