Katherine Fite: Greater residential energy efficiency produces comfort, savings

Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Conservation and increased efficiency remain relatively untapped resources that could save 30 percent or more of the energy used in the United States.

Energy-efficient products and technologies are rapidly becoming a new and important growth sector in the economy, attracting new investments, stimulating job creation, and generating major energy savings for the nation as a whole. Fortunately, a number of state and federal tax credits and incentives currently support the use of a variety of energy-saving materials and technologies for business and residential applications.

The American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy ranks all states annually with regard to best practices and leadership in energy-efficiency policy and program implementation. Notably, Massachusetts was ranked No. 1 for the first time in 2011 and again in 2012 and 2013, thanks, in part, to the 2008 Massachusetts Green Communities Act which has provided a major foundation for greater investment in energy-efficiency programs.

For example, Greenfield has invested over $75,000 to assist income-eligible residents receive low-interest loans to improve their home energy efficiency. Amherst is one of 15 communities recently chosen to participate in the “Solarize Mass” program which provides reduced pricing for solar-electric installations for residences and businesses. Also, Massachusetts is a major participant in a regional effort to reduce greenhouse gases through greater energy efficiency. By 2030, 25 percent of Massachusetts electric power must come from renewable sources.

Nationally, consumers spend more than $241 billion annually on home energy, accounting for 1.2 billion tons or more of greenhouse emissions. Residential electricity consumption has increased nearly 40 percent since 1970 due to the increased size of homes and the greater variety of appliances and electronics in use. Since 2000, electricity costs alone have increased by about 5 percent per year. Yet electricity use in the nation has been reduced by 7 to 10 percent due in part to new appliance efficiency standards and tax incentives for purchasing Energy Star products — those that rank in the top 25 percent of products in terms of energy efficiency.

Not using it, using less of it, or using a less expensive alternative are major strategies for reducing energy usage. Financial savings advantages and tax incentives for improved residential energy efficiency are motivating home owners to consider one or more of the following options:

∎ Generate electricity from sun or wind power systems, and reduce or completely eliminate residential energy bills. Federal energy credits currently exist for such residential and commercial installations and excess solar renewable energy credits.

∎ Install more energy-efficient light bulbs (LEDs or CFLs). A compact fluorescent light bulb uses 75 percent less energy and lasts about 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb, and LED sources are even more efficient than CFLs.

∎ Weather–stripping and caulking around doors and windows significantly reduces drafts and heat loss. Replacing exterior doors and single-pane with double-pane windows reduces heat loss and improves residential comfort level. A simple and inexpensive solution to reduce heat loss through windows is to cover them with inexpensive, clear plastic sheeting.

∎ Increase insulation in walls, ceilings, floors and attics (upgrade to R-30). Arrange a no-cost home energy audit with professionals through the MassSave program. MassSave, is a collaboration of Massachusetts municipalities and cooperatives that provides free technical assistance to customers who are seeking ways to increase energy efficiency in their homes.

∎ Install programmable thermostats that are compatible with home heating and cooling systems to allow different temperature settings throughout the day. Non-programmable thermostats may be replaced at greatly reduced or no cost in some home energy audits.

∎ Purchase Energy Star appliances. Refrigerators and hot water heaters generally consume the second and third greatest amounts of residential energy. Set refrigerator thermostat between 38 and 40 degrees and freezer temperature between 0 and 5 degrees. Lower hot water-heater temperature to between 120 and 125 F and wrap-insulate the heater, if possible. Also, insulate hot water pipes in basement locations.

∎ Use Smart Power Strips to control electronics. Even when turned off, some electronic devices still use electricity when plugged in. This “standby” power can draw as much as several light bulbs left on 24 hours a day. A smart power strip allows some devices to remain in standby mode while completely turning off others.

Achieving greater residential energy efficiency has many benefits. These include greater material comfort and lower home energy costs, creation of new jobs, reduction of CO2 emissions, and reduced need for major investments in new power plants. The energy that we don’t use is the cheapest energy of all.

Katherine Fite is a member of the Energy Study Group of the Amherst League of Women Voters.