Groups want extension of home energy-efficiency program

Feb. 12, 2013 @ 06:27 PM

Two key interest groups want the City Council to use local money to extend the house-by-house energy-savings renovations officials launched 2½ years ago with a federal economic-stimulus grant.

Former Councilman Frank Hyman emailed council members recently to say the People’s Alliance and the Durham branch of the NAACP favor an extension of the Home Energy Savings Program.

Backers want the council to devote about $300,000 a year to the program, which pays contractors to seal leaks and add insulation to eligible homes.

They’ve made a point of attending the council’s wintertime meetings with Partners Against Crime groups to push the issue. The council uses the meetings to gauge public sentiment on budget issues.

Hyman at one such meeting last Saturday said a local allocation would allow officials to “continue an effective and well-managed program.”

Mayor Bill Bell in his annual state of the city address also mentioned the retrofits as an issue the council has to ponder. He called it “a very practical program that has touched a lot of worthwhile and needy families.”

Officials launched the retrofits in 2010 using about half the proceeds of a $2.2 million economic-stimulus grant the city received from the federal government. Backers say it has helped about 700 households.

Participating homeowners have to pay a fee that covers part of the cost of their home’s retrofit. The fee has risen a couple times, going from $200 initially to $300 and now $400.

The program sought a 20 percent reduction in a home’s energy use. Officials hoped to verify success with before-and-after comparisons of power bills, but in practice the data have been difficult to obtain.

Tobin Freid, Durham’s city/county sustainability coordinator, said officials had Duke Energy’s agreement going in that it would make the data available for free if participating homeowners signed releases.

Officials obtained the releases and were hoping to get data covering the year prior to a home’s treatment and the two years after treatment.

But “when we finally asked for the data maybe a year ago, [Duke Energy officials] said there were issues with fairness,” Freid said.

The utility wanted payment for the information and also signaled it could supply only one year of post-treatment data rather than two. Also, it wasn’t able to tie its data offerings to the actual date a house received its retrofit.

Freid said it looks like the utility changed positions because “there were other third parties,” including local governments and university researchers, who wanted similar information to analyze.

In Durham, officials have been trying to fill in by asking homeowners to voluntarily send in their own billing data. Freid said 150 to 200 have done so.

Now, “we have to analyze that, making sure we control for the weather,” Freid said, acknowledging that the area has experienced a couple of relatively warm winters of late that would contribute to lower energy consumption.

Officials also have surveyed participating homeowners, seeking information on any changes in household consumption patterns that may have occurred separate from the retrofit program.

A change in the number of people living in a house, purchases of a new appliance and homeowner-initiated repairs could all affect the analysis, Freid said.

Officials also tested the before-and-after air-tightness of a number of homes in program. The results on average showed a 12 to 13 percent improvement in air-tightness after contract caulked and sealed floors and ductwork.