An infrared image from an energy audit. (Photo by prc1333 via Creative Commons)
There’s at least one bipartisan piece of legislation moving through Michigan’s lame-duck session: A streamlined loan program for residential customers looking to install renewable energy or efficiency systems on their property.
The Municipal Utility Residential Clean Energy Program Act is modeled after the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy financing law of 2010, bringing to homeowners a similar loan program that until now has only been available to commercial and industrial property owners.
However, the law would apply only to residential customers of municipal utilities — about 260,000 households, according to the Michigan Municipal Utility Association. The law would apply to residents in cities such as Lansing and Traverse City after local governing board approval.
“It gets down to the fact that energy efficiency is common sense: It reduces energy waste and saves money,” said Jack Schmitt, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “This legislation allows for and promotes greater opportunities for energy efficiency throughout Michigan.”
Illinois Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner visits the statehouse on Dec. 2. (AP Photo / Seth Perlman)
Following recent GOP election gains, efficiency advocates are taking a glass-half-full approach, emphasizing bipartisan support for efficiency mandates and missions, including among Republicans like Illinois Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.
That was the message of the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance in a teleconference on Wednesday analyzing the effect of the November elections for governor and state legislature in 13 states where Republicans were generally victorious.
But there is also uncertainty ahead in the energy efficiency landscape, namely in three states – all with Republican governors and legislative majorities – where rollbacks of energy efficiency mandates have occurred.
Gov. John Kasich was re-elected in Ohio, and Gov. Mike Pence is still in office in Indiana, up for re-election in 2016. In those states, majority Republican legislatures this year passed bills freezing and ending, respectively, the states’ mandates for increased energy efficiency.
A new combined heat and power facility (lower left) is under construction at the University of Minnesota. (Courtesy photo)
Two dangerous warning signs occurred separately a few years ago to remind staff at the University of Minnesota that the sprawling campus needed a new source of heating and electricity.
The University’s main campus, along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, is largely heated by the Southeast Steam Plant, a 1903 facility located upriver from the campus. Jerome Malmquist, the university’s director of energy management, says a major crisis was narrowly averted when a freeway bridge between the steam plant and the main campus suddenly collapsed in 2007.
Fortunately, underground steam tunnel beneath the freeway bridge was undamaged. But around the same time, two boilers went offline on a particularly cold day, an episode that sent shivers up the spine of Malmquist and his staff that had nothing to do with the weather.
NIck Hylla is the executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.
By Nick Hylla
As the year draws to a close, it is becoming more and more apparent that 2014 will be remembered as a landmark year for renewable energy in the United States.
The current narrative is quite captivating… the rise of community solar, the utility death spiral, the Tesla Gigafactory, renewable energy “fairness,” the value of solar, the Clean Power Plan, the shale revolution, the US-China climate agreement, the end of cheap coal, fossil fuel divestment, and more.
Interestingly, the Midwest will surely be of significant note. The Minnesota Clean Energy Jobs Act, the Iowa Supreme Court ruling on third party ownership, and the Wisconsin utility rate cases have all set precedents with trajectories that will define whether our energy markets become more opaque, centralized, and monopolized or more open, distributed, and shared.
The Michigan Public Service Commission announced this week that it will be the first state energy agency in the country to use Property Assessed Clean Energy financing for efficiency projects at its new headquarters.
The agency will lease the building from a private owner, who has agreed to finance just under $500,000 for LED lighting, a 20 kW solar array and variable speed motors for heating and cooling.
The property owner, Saginaw Plaza Ltd., will receive a 20-year fixed-rate loan that will be paid for through the MPSC’s energy savings. It’s anticipated that the building will save more in reduced energy consumption than the cost of the loan.
“The commission thought it would be a good idea to set an example when it comes to energy efficiency,” MPSC spokeswoman Judy Palnau said.
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaks at a benefit in 2009. (Photo by Steven Depolo via Creative Commons)
Grand Rapids, Michigan Mayor George Heartwell is counting down the days until he has to leave office: “419 days, seven hours and 20 minutes,” he smiled at the end of an interview last week.
But it’s not for a desire to leave — in a local election this month, voters approved term limits for citywide elected officials, leaving Heartwell as a lame duck in 2015. He will have served 12 years on the job.
Heartwell, 65, sat down with Midwest Energy News to talk about his time in the mayor’s office, a part-time job in a weak-mayor system that gives most policy control to a board of commissioners.
Yet Heartwell has elevated the city as a model for sustainability, renewable energy and energy efficiency. It includes an aggressive 100-percent renewable energy goal by 2020 (it’s at 25 percent now) and an entire city lighting system comprised of LEDs.
During his time in office, the United Nations recognized the city as a “Regional Center of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development” (one of two in the U.S.) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named it the most sustainable city in the country in 2010.
(Photo by jdickert via Creative Commons)
Although all Ohio ratepayers benefit from energy-efficient home weatherization programs for low-income families, future benefits could suffer from recent changes to state law, says a new report.
Investments in those programs have been producing $2.51 in savings and other benefits for every $1 they cost, reports the study from Policy Matters Ohio.
Yet while Ohio’s energy efficiency standard had been increasing private spending on the programs, changes under Senate Bill 310 threaten to severely limit those investments, the study says.
The law, which became effective this fall, freezes for two years any increases in the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy targets, while also weakening the standards. Meanwhile, a study committee is considering the future of the standards after the two-year freeze.
Some state legislators and utilities have said they want to eliminate any increases in the energy efficiency standard altogether.
In Cook County, which includes Chicago, 41 percent of households are renters. (Photo by sabrina via Creative Commons)
Making the case for energy efficiency investments seems relatively straightforward for homeowners who will reap the benefits directly in lower utility bills. But for rental, multi-unit buildings where landlords pay for infrastructure and appliance upgrades while tenants pay all or most of the utility bills, it’s much more complicated.
This situation is referred to as a “split incentive,” where the party making the investment won’t directly reap all or any of the financial benefits.
Landlords who don’t live in a given building also don’t have the personal incentive of seeking a more comfortable dwelling free of drafts and temperature swings.
But energy efficiency measures like insulation, new furnaces, smart appliances and efficient lighting do pay off for building owners, a message the Chicago-based group Elevate Energy is working to convey statewide. Elevate Energy has a program specifically to educate multi-unit building owners about energy efficiency and assist them with free energy audits and advice on contractors and upgrades.
A propane tank at a home near Baraga, Michigan. (Photo by hyperboreal via Creative Commons)
Propane users, as was apparent during last winter’s price spike, can get hit by a double-whammy.
“On the one hand, you have to pay more,” said Andy Johnson, director of the Winneshiek Energy District in Decorah, Iowa. “On the other hand, you have no help.”
Customers of natural-gas and electric utilities typically get that help in the form of ratepayer-funded efficiency benefits. With the exception of a few New England states, however, efficiency benefits for propane customers usually are modest, at best.
Compounding that is the fact that propane heating usually costs at least twice what natural gas does.
The higher cost of propane looms particularly large in the Midwest, where it plays a more prominent role in heating than it does in the nation overall.
Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation grantees tour Ameren facilities in downstate Illinois. (Photo courtesy ISEIF)
The smart meters being delivered to Illinois homes under the state’s 2011 smart grid law could potentially spark significant energy savings – relieving burden on the grid and on power supplies and saving money for residents.
But that’s only if people use the information provided by smart meters to modify their habits, by shifting when they use energy, installing more efficient appliances and the like. Figuring out how to use a smart meter and respond to the data it provides is a complicated and intimidating task for anyone.
It is especially challenging for renters and public housing residents who don’t own their appliances or even pay their own energy bills; or for senior citizens who don’t know how to use the internet; or for immigrants who don’t speak English. And for people in low-income and marginalized neighborhoods in general, beset by violence, decrepit housing, and a lack of well-paying jobs, understanding and modifying energy use is likely to be a very low priority.