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How to Save Money (and the Earth) While Keeping Your Bad Habits

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Energy efficiency building upgrades have been widely hailed as the low-hanging fruit of the clean energy sector, easy pickings for energy savings that can help jump-start the green economy through job creation and cost savings

But what IS an energy efficiency building upgrade (or retrofit, as it is sometimes called)?

Buildings are improved so that they use less energy and are more comfortable, but without requiring anyone to change their behavior. Think about it: with old, poorly insulated buildings, we are basically paying to heat or air-condition the outdoors. With inefficient heating, cooling, or lighting systems, we are doing something equivalent to burning a paycheck right next to our appliances.

Here’s how an energy efficiency building upgrade works: Typically, a building is first inspected by an energy “auditor” (a horrid word – having an “auditor” come in before a “retrofit” sounds like someone from the IRS is prepping you for a particularly nasty medical procedure – but those are the terms). The auditor does a visual check and maybe some tests. Depending on the results the auditor will recommend different improvements (called energy efficiency “measures”) like better insulation, more efficient lighting, or a “cool” roof. If a utility organizes the upgrade work itself, the program is called a “direct install” project. After all the work is completed, buildings are more comfortable and less expensive to run.

1) It is NOT a program to change behavior. Turning off the lights when you leave the room is great, but that’s energy conservation, not energy efficiency. You’re doing things differently to save energy. With energy efficiency measures people do all the same stuff they used to, but do it while using less energy. Conservation is not a “building upgrade,” it’s a “person upgrade.

2) It is MORE THAN a change in appliances. Energy efficient appliances are indeed a type of energy efficiency measure, but unless you live in your washer and dryer (not recommended) getting better appliances is not the same as a building upgrade program.  (Although switching to more efficient appliances is a good way to save energy and money.)

3) It is NOT a type of renewable energy. Energy efficiency is about using less energy, not generating more of it. Renewable energy includes things like wind and solar power, methods for generating cleaner electricity.  The difference is that generating electricity with renewables doesn’t impact how much energy you use, just how you get it. Experts often recommend doing energy efficiency upgrade work before installing renewable energy generation (as one expert said “there’s no sense in putting good wine in a leaky bucket.”)

The Department of Energy estimates that buildings use 70 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, so the potential for saving energy with building upgrades is huge. In Los Angeles there are around 1.7 million homes and businesses, many of which are old and pre-date the energy efficiency building codes of the 1970s. In South Los Angeles, for example, there are over 75,000 housing units that are more than 50 years old. An energy efficiency program here could make a big dent in the city’s energy footprint. And that, of course, is why people all over the country have been so excited about creating energy efficiency upgrade programs in cities across the nation.

So now that we know what that low hanging fruit is, all that’s left to do is . . . go get it.

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