Energy Retrofits: Small Changes Add Up

Increasing Efficiency is the First Step Toward Energy Sustainability

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Anna Bruen coordinates the Hometown Rewards program for the city of Fairfield, Iowa.

Eric Dregne is vice president of strategic initiatives for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, Iowa.

Eric Coffman leads the Grants to Green Initiative in Dubuque, Iowa.

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Posted: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 1:00 pm

Building energy efficiency into new construction is getting easier all the time, and sleek wind or solar installations are impressive demonstrations of technology. But the fact is that most buildings are legacies.

The 100-year-old farmhouse that loses heat through the roof, the low-income housing development with the 1960s-vintage boiler – these are the realities that families and organizations deal with when trying to become more energy efficient.

And while there are obvious long-term savings in improving energy efficiency, in the short term these repairs can be too costly to take on.

At the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa, two organizations described how they combined grants and partnered with experts to help put efficiency retrofits in place for those who needed help the most.

Both the city of Fairfield, Iowa, and the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, began with grants offered by Alliant Energy. Fairfield’s Hometown Rewards Program encourages families and local groups to work together to make changes. The Dubuque Community Foundation’s Grants to Green program focuses on nonprofit organizations, which are often saddled with older buildings and smaller budgets.

Both programs have achieved startling successes. In Fairfield, 50 percent of the population has participated in some aspect of Hometown Rewards, and the city saved $60,000 on its own energy usage, enough to install a solar array on the Fairfield Public Library building. In Dubuque, Grants to Green is in an earlier part of its life cycle, but organizers estimate that over a five-year period it will save non-profit organizations more than $1 million on their energy bills.

A graduate student at Iowa State University and a Fairfield city employee, Anna Bruen was hired to coordinate the Hometown Rewards project knowing that the city also had its "Go Green" program, a long-term strategic plan for sustainability. The keyword, though, was "long-term."

“We ended up with 10 goals and 37 strategies, and we looked at this and went, ‘This is a mini-Go Green that we’re doing in two years instead of 20 – this isn’t going to be done by two people; this really needs to be a community effort.’”

The program asked individuals and groups to set their own efficiency goals: a family might pledge to wash its clothes in cold water, a civic group might agree to weatherize homes for veterans, or a grade-school class might agree to put a smiley face sticker on light switches that were turned off when rooms weren’t being used.

A second element of the program was educational sessions on a variety of energy-saving techniques. And everyone’s goals combined to earn a citywide reward of a solar installation at the library.

“It really shows that you need to have the whole community participating in a way that’s real to them,” Bruen said.

The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque started out with a more tightly defined target: it wanted to help create energy savings for nonprofit organizations, many of which were struggling to light and heat inefficient older buildings.

“A nonprofit that saves $5,000 or $10,000 a year on their energy bills is in a better position to meet their own mission,” said Eric Dregne, the foundation’s vice president of strategic initiatives, “and along the way they’re doing good things for the planet.”

Grants to Green began in Atlanta, and when the Atlanta organization began expanding nationally, it began with a planning grant to fund energy assessments. Dubuque’s foundation became expert at leveraging and combining grants, and the matching funds for this planning grant were provided by the Iowa Energy Center. When assessments showed that there would be genuine interest and benefit, another pair of grants from the Atlanta organization and the IEC were provided to begin doing the actual work.

“It’s a very holistic approach,” said Eric Coffman, who is leading the Dubuque Grants to Green Initiative. “It’s not just, do an energy audit and then let the organization do what they want after that point. This really walks the organization through the whole process of doing the retrofit, a process with quality assurance on the back end and each step of the way.”

The group led the nonprofits through the process of choosing a project and taking bids from contractors, and in some cases bringing in engineering designers to be sure all the bids addressed the same problem with the same level of detail. Work is in progress now and the program will follow up by examining utility bills to measure the actual savings.

Expectations are optimistic; the changes made are expected to pay for themselves in about three and a half years.

“In terms of energy savings, we’re seeing about 6.5 percent savings,” Coffman said, “so we’re talking about the equivalent of taking 27 cars off the road or planting 3,200 trees.

“I'm a big advocate of solar, but efficiency is the first measure. If you want to be cost-effective, you definitely want to start there,” he added.

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