Local Self-Reliance: Home Energy Efficiency

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Improving home energy efficiency goes a long way towards advancing local self-reliance.

For the past several years, the good folks at the Institute
for Local Self-
Reliance in Washington, D.C. have worked to help urban
residents gain greater control over their lives through the
use of low-technology, decentralist tools and concepts. We
strongly believe that more people (city dwellers and
country folk alike) should be exposed to the Institute’s
admirable efforts … which is why we’ve made this “what’s
happening where” report by ILSR staffers one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’
regular features.

Over the next few months, a new national program will help
many Americans take a hard look at how they use energy in
their homes, and will also explain what can be done to cut
a household’s use of electricity, gas, heating oil, etc.
Under the National Energy Conservation Act of November 1978
(which is just now getting into gear), each state is
required to design its own power consumption plan. However,
although there will be features that vary from
plan to plan, the goals of them all will be the same: to
tell homeowners how they can use energy more efficiently,
and to help them finance the investment required to achieve home energy efficiency and cut
down on power use.

Success at the Local Level

So far, the best energy conservation efforts
have involved governments and citizens working together at
the local level. For example, after a study of local power
consumption that involved more than 2,000 residents, the
city of Portland, Oregon enacted the nation’s most
ambitious energy conservation law. That plan could save the
citizens an estimated 30% of their current energy use by

And we here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
in Washington, D.C. are showing how citizens in a big city
can work together to cut home energy costs.

An Energy Audit Program

Last March, the Institute
began an experimental neighborhood energy audit program in
Anacostia … an area in the southeast section of the
nation’s capital. In order to measure the results, we
selected a four-square-block section of 1,000 households which collectively were consuming 150 billion Btu’s of
electricity, gas, and oil each year . . . for a combined
energy bill of $700,000.

To run the program, the Institute
recruited six previously unemployed neighborhood residents
from a local job bank. The crew was then given four weeks
of extensive training in building construction and
materials, heat transfer, heating and cooling mechanical
systems, and solar applications.

A Not-So-Simple Job

Our initial audit proved that there’s more to
running an energy conservation plan than talking about
storm windows and attic insulation. We uncovered a
structurally deficient foundation in the very first house
that we visited (and it doesn’t make much sense to insulate
a dwelling that’s falling down). Therefore, the auditors
put that particular homeowner in touch with a local housing
rehabilitation program.

Our team also found that many
people were reluctant to spend their hard-earned money on
home weatherproofing, even when such an investment would
clearly save them cash in the long run. So the Institute
prepared a fact sheet on financing (including a lot of
private and public loan sources), and the auditors
discussed financing possibilities with residents after each
inspection. In some cases the auditors were able to
convince local merchants to offer discounts on
weatherization materials to those families who had received
a home energy analysis.

Early Returns

After this winter, the Institute will have some real data
on long-term energy savings produced by our project, but
there have already been impressive results!

We found that
most people in Anacostia, for example, have their water
heater thermostats set too high. Simply by turning them
down, the 200 audited households were able to save an
estimated total of $2,000 in fuel bills.

Many of the
families we visited also discovered some basics about the
construction of their homes in the course of their audits.
Some folks, for instance, who live in houses with crawl
spaces between the highest ceiling and the roof were
surprised to learn such areas existed. Another tenant was
shocked to find out that a simple electric fan doubled his
electricity consumption at certain times of the day. (He
made his discovery after learning how to read the meter as
it recorded his home’s electric usage.)

Depending on how
each state designs its energy plan, community organizations
around the country may get a chance to set up auditing
projects similar to the Anacostia program. Interested
groups should contact their state’s energy office to find
out how they can help draft their own region’s plan.

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