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Friday, 02 March 2012 09:28

Building better communities by saving energy, money

Written by  Kym Reinstadler
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Building better communities by saving energy, money Courtesy photo
MUSKEGON — When light excavation started outside Every Woman’s Place, neighbors phoned to ask whether the shelter was getting an addition.

When EWP’s staff of 50 moves into the recently donated Parmenter O’Toole Law Building, the shelter interior will be remodeled to accommodate more women and children who are homeless or fleeing domestic violence. But the construction that neighbors were noticing is a 300-panel, 70-kilowatt, ground-mounted solar photovoltaic system that should provide about 40 percent of the shelter’s energy.

The supplemental solar energy system is expected to pare $6,000 off the nonprofit organization’s energy costs in 2012, but could save as much as $14,000, said Christina Scarpino, EWP’s director of development. Savings over the 20-year life expectancy of the system are substantial for nonprofits like EWP.

“Funds saved through green energy will be used for programming and to make up for a recent loss in federal funding,” Scarpino said.

Other Muskegon County shelters are getting green features, too, thanks to a $3.2 million grant from the Muskegon-Oceana Community Action Partnership (MOCAP), an affiliate of the Michigan Weatherization Assistance Program network.

The Muskegon Rescue Mission Women’s Shelter is getting a new roof and a solar thermal hot water system will be installed on it. The Muskegon Rescue Mission’s Men’s Shelter will get a roof-mounted solar heat system. And the West Michigan Therapy Transitional Living Center in Muskegon Heights will get a roof replacement and a solar heat system and solar thermal hot water system.

About $700,000 of the grant is being used to upgrade single-family homes of low-income households with state-of-the-art technologies like solar panels, water heating systems, heat pumps and newer efficient roofs.

“This is bringing renewable energy to sectors of our community who would not otherwise have access,” said Arn Boezaart, director of the Muskegon Alternate and Renewable Energy Center, which advised MOCAP on the projects. “Until this project, renewable energy has only been accessible to those who have the discretionary dollars to buy these devices.”

The MOCAP grant trickled down from a $7 million Sustainable Energy Resources for Consumers (SERC) grant to the state of Michigan — a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The idea was to fund a variety of programs that provide incentives and education to get people excited about making their homes more comfortable and energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.

Spending less for heating and cooling allows homeowners to spend more on other needs. Increased demand for weatherization would put people to work.

Some dubbed it “Caulkers For Clunkers,” a takeoff on the popular “Cash For Clunkers” incentive that turned around a plummeting automotive industry.

Unfortunately, weatherization activities are a tougher sell than new cars, says Ann Erhardt, who manages energy programs for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

WMEAC launched a grassroots program in January 2011 through BetterBuildings For Michigan, another stimulus-funded initiative.

The program sends an energy diagnostics team into homes in targeted low- to middle-class neighborhoods to conduct blower-door and infrared thermal tests that reveal energy leaks. The homeowner gets recommendations for repairs, contractor estimates and referrals for help with the cost if they need it.

Crews also give out small items like energy-efficient lightbulbs or foam insulation for pipes in hopes that people will like the savings and look for more ways to cut costs.

The group hoped to get halfway to its goal of doing diagnostic tests in 3,000 Grand Rapids homes by mid-2013. So far, 800 homes in Eastown, Oakdale, Riverside and Northwest neighborhoods have been tested.

Even when working through neighborhood associations, churches and other trusted groups, it’s hard to get people to pay attention to weatherization, Erhardt said. Some conservative residents want no part of a government program, even if it saves them money.

“We can’t just go in there and say we need to become more energy efficient because it will reduce the need for a coal-fired plant,” Erhardt said. “They don’t see the connection between one thing and the other thing. They just don’t want to hear it.”

On Jan. 18 BetterBuildings launched a new outreach among a “neighborhood” that’s defined socially, not geographically. Game on, Grand Valley State University faculty and staff.

Need for the program is great, Erhardt said. Crews are seeing many older properties with insufficient insulation. Some have asbestos and outdated knob-and-tube wiring that must be removed before insulation is added.

Updating Grand Rapids’ housing stock could be a thriving market-based business long after the stimulus monies run out, Erhardt said.

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