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Good News from the Department of Energy

Progress sometimes appears to be very slow in changing minds and attitudes relative to energy and CO2. Neither does it appear to follow a straight line – rather it seems as if little is happening and then suddenly a major shift occurs. This seems true of the Department of Energy (DOE) when it comes to energy use in buildings.

To those of us focused on reducing building energy consumption, it was quite a surprise – almost a shock – to hear about the Recovery through Retrofit Program that was announced by the White House last October.

This is a well funded effort ($390 million) intended to make a breakthrough in energy retrofitting for existing homes. There is much talk about Green Building, Passive Houses and Super Insulated houses which lower energy consumption for new buildings; but the country is now building only about half a million new dwellings per year while the number of existing homes is near 113 million. The government understands this. The Recovery through Retrofit program is not intended merely to retrofit some buildings but rather to develop new systems approaches and techniques to do this on a mass scale. This is a competitive program so the bidders must be innovative with well thought out plans if their efforts are to be funded.

The RPQ for the program required that a municipality partner with people from industry, business, educational institutes, and other interested parties to qualify for submittal. The program allowed a municipality to designate a non profit if it decided not to submit a proposal itself. Community Solutions was designated as the non profit for Yellow Springs. Together with a group of business and educational institutes and consultants, we submitted a response to the second phase of the RPQ. (Another $60 million) We just learned that we were not one of the winners. We had a good proposal and I am pleased that there were some even better.

While we were in the middle of preparing our response, the government announced another program, the so called Cash for Caulkers, which has been renamed Home Star. This is a new proposed national incentive effort for residential efficiency retrofits, not yet approved by Congress. (This is not competitive with Retrofit for Recovery efforts.) Home Star also recognizes that the national need is to retrofit the existing stock rather than to focus on new building. The technologies developed in the Retrofit for Recovery efforts will hopefully reduce the cost of retrofitting so Home Star can provide more retrofits within its budget. Many of the plans for housing are included in a February presentation by DOE which details their retrofit plans as well as the quite massive expenditures on energy in general.

In May 2009, the DOE provided an upgrade for its popular “Energy Savers Booklet”

This is a must read for anybody interested in reducing their home energy consumption. I have followed the DOE’s upgrades to this booklet for some years and the latest version is excellent. It’s a great primer for home energy curtailment.

Another document important for those interested in reducing their home energy consumption is produced by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). ACEEE has published a very impressive book Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings for 17 years, putting out a new version just about every other year. Version 9 came out in 2007 and it is without doubt one of the best books on home energy savings. The combination of this with the DOE “Energy Savers Booklet” is a great education for all of us concerned with energy use in our homes. ACEEE has now made a condensed version of the book available on its web site. I recommend buying the book and studying it carefully.

ACEEE has a long term relationship with the DOE via Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), one of DOE’s 10 National Labs. Arthur Rosenfeld was an acclaimed high-energy physicist at Berkeley Lab, was a member of the California Energy Commission twice and was also the winner of the Enrico Fermi Award, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious awards for scientific achievement. Rosenfeld moved from basic physics research into energy in the 1970s. He founded the Center for Building Science at Berkeley Lab, where the electronic ballast for the Compact Fluorescent was developed as well as glass coatings. Rosenfeld was the co-founder of the ACEEE. ACEEE puts on a bi annual conference “Energy Efficiency in Buildings” at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California. (next one August 2010).
Last December (2009), the DOE gave $15.9 million in stimulus funding to the Berkeley Lab to build a “national user facility” that will attract researchers from around the U.S. and the world to study best practices for improving building energy efficiency. The lab will focus on creating net-zero energy buildings and will test new air conditioning systems, lighting, on-site power generation, plus new kinds of roofs and skylights. Additionally, the lab will investigate new methods of constructing windows, walls and floors.

Also, last December the DOE launched a new website called Open Energy Information. ( intended to bring energy technology information to the public. This is a Web site that makes energy information and resources more available to everyone. In addition to information about building energy efficiency that is available to project developers, OpenEI has data sets related to worldwide solar and wind potential, information on climate zones and related best practices. One sector of the site, dubbed VIBE (Virtual Information Bridge to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy), brings together a number of Web resources related to solar, wind, biomass and transportation.

It’s gratifying to see the DOE begin to take big strides in supporting the reduction of energy use in existing buildings. Retrofit costs are still high and funding difficult to obtain but this should change over the next year. The nation’s consciousness is moving away from new green buildings to impressive energy retrofits of the existing stock. This will also provide employment for hundreds of thousands of the one million or more building tradespeople who are out of work.

Sometimes we think that government is an obstacle. But government is essentially the reflection of the people. I have been involved in building energy efficiency for decades. Suddenly the government has stepped out well ahead of the pack. This is very good news. It doesn’t mean that we should reduce our efforts to lobby the government or that the many individuals who have made substantive progress should retire. Rather it means that our institutions are ready to lead. What is also noteworthy is that the government is doing this in partnership with communities. This is cause for celebration.

Editorial Notes: Pat Murphy is
Executive Director of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions and the author of the new book Plan C – Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change. He was the co-writer and co-producer of his organization's award-winning documentary film, "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" (2006)
About Community Solutions:
The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, founded in 1940 as Community Service, Inc., is a non-profit organization that educates on the benefits and values of small local community living. We envision a world where people live sustainably and cooperatively in local communities which are diverse, equitable, and just. The Community Solutions program, started in 2003, is a national resource for knowledge and practices on low-energy living and self-reliant communities. We educate about the coming global oil production peak and climate change, and design solutions to the current unsustainable, fossil-fuel based, overly centralized way of living.
Their website is

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