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Rick Barnett's picture
Consultant Green Builder

Rick Barnett has a B.A. in psychology (UCSB) and an Interdisciplinary Master’s in Environmental Management (Oregon State University, 1981).  Before becoming a builder, Rick introduced recycling...

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  • Jan 20, 2019

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America’s first environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, was the result of escalating public demand for less pollution.  Enacted in1970, the “environmental magna carta” was soon followed by other laws defining a federal strategy to merge an array of environmental standards into the routine of every person, business, and public agency.  Washington DC became the engineer and referee for a still-raging battle between environmental, consumer and corporate interests. 

Political analyst Joel Stronberg summarized the current condition: “Today is indeed proof of the stultifying impact of partisan politics on national energy and environment policies. Hardly anything related to energy or the environment is able to move through the political gauntlet. What does move is immediately challenged in court by one side or the other”.

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As a result, energy and environment goals remain elusive:

  • Although utilities are progressing toward emission goals in the Clean Power Plan, the New York Times outlined an administration strategy that “strikes at the heart of climate-change regulations adopted by the Obama administration to force change among polluting industries”.
  • The EPA backed away from controlling toxic coal ash disposal, with this response from The Seattle Times: “Coal ash is the residue left after burning coal to generate power. Utilities around the country have reported groundwater contamination with arsenic, radium and other pollutants at coal-burning power plants….”.
  • Time described another rollback: “Conserving oil is no longer an economic imperative for the U.S., the Trump administration declares in a major new policy statement that threatens to undermine decades of government campaigns for gas-thrifty cars and other conservation programs”.
  • Jeffrey Bossert Clark, BP’s representative in lawsuits over the nation's largest oil spill and repeated challenger of climate science, will serve as the nation's top environmental lawyer—a key position for defending the administration’s regulatory downsizing.

  • Prior to elections, The Hill reported:  “Democrats are unlikely to pursue major climate change legislation if they win the House majority, despite a growing body of evidence suggesting time is running out to address the issue…..The game plan for next year, House Democrats say, is more incremental steps and hearings”. 

Fully engaged with the political tide, renewable energy is the most visible option for balancing the energy future.  Solar and wind farms are larger and more common.  Rooftop solar is growing sharply in a global market.  Drawn to the photogenic success, most are not aware of the flip side, such as a 2017 reminder from Solar Daily: “expansion of renewable energy cannot by itself stave off catastrophic climate change”. 

The New York Times drew attention to the energy imbalance:  “Even with the impressive recent gains for renewable energy, the world is still far from solving global warming……One reason: carbon-free sources like wind, solar and nuclear power aren’t yet growing fast enough to keep up with rising global energy demand…….global coal consumption could stay flat for decades……the average coal plant in Asia is less than 15 years old (compared to about 41 years in the United States). ”

While a broad range of low-carbon interests engage the DC pendulum, efforts to step around political confrontation are uncommon.  One such private initiative is Ouachita Electric Coop’s “HELP PAYS”efficiency program (Arkansas).  Without new expense, owners and renters can enjoy efficiency upgrades, regardless of credit or other qualifications.

Ouachita Electric’s progressive financing model displayed positive results in their 2017 report, “Inclusive Financing for Energy Efficiency” (HELP PAYS® Program Update Report (June 2017) ).  All Coop members are offered an on-bill financed loan, secured by nothing more than the certainty of future electricity sales.  “Once cost recovery is complete, all upgrades belong to the owner”.

In 2016, Ouachita Electric invested $1.6 million in the Arkansas economy, reducing energy demand without subsidy from tax dollars or Coop members.  The 2017 report ends by looking at a future of “deep energy savings while creating value for all members and fueling local economic development”.

The Coop could move toward that future by cutting thermal leakage from the homes of Coop members.  Maintaining interior comfort has always been the largest part of residential energy expense. Unfortunately, leakage has become an accepted feature of America’s 130 million homes, nearly half of which were built before 1970.

Once the thermostat is set, few give much thought to the effectiveness of their thermal shell.


infra-red photo

While some leakage can be reduced by insulating around ceiling joist, wall framing, the largest part of a thermal shell, is difficult to access and seldom improved in a weatherization retrofit.  Due to industry trends, efficiency programs emphasize small load reductions by upgrading to higher-efficiency products (appliances, electronics, and lighting) rather than targeting the primary driver of peak demand. 

Heat/cool energy is the only type of residential demand that can actually be reduced, since leakage is eliminated by products that don’t consume energy.

With innovation, efficiency programs could shift toward cutting thermal leakage.   Existing technology is available to create an effective thermal seal between inside and outside air.  Local contractors can use commercially available products to measurably reduce a home’s propensity to use energy. Thermal retrofits are very labor-intensive, boosting any local economy.

Improved comfort and resilience bring additional value to good thermal performance.  Details about targeting thermal leakage are in “Thermal Optimization:  A Private Sector Program for Energy Efficiency

During a recent phone conversation, Ouachita Electric General Manager Mark Cayce told the author, “you’ve opened our eyes to the value of thermal performance for our members…..with the local jobs and reduced peak load, we’re taking a close look at this”.

A utility’s long-term interest to supply residential energy creates an incentive to finance thermal retrofits for customers.  And a home’s long-term need for electricity assures repayment of the loan. With the Ouachita financing model, innovation can balance the energy future.

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