Green homes: solar vs. energy efficiency
Solar gets more subsidies, but home energy efficiency may be more cost-effective.
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The average home is leaky – lots of energy goes out of windows, doors, or walls. Two percent of all the energy used in California is lost from bad ducts alone.Skip to next paragraph
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The Olssons’ audit revealed, among other things, that their attic hemorrhages heat. The audit prioritized retrofits based on return on investment, helping the couple decide to insulate the attic and hold off on other fixes.
“Even with all the incentives offered [for solar], it pays me more to solve my problem by retrofitting the house,” says Mr. Olsson.
Energy officials say they want homeowners to make such rational assessments, but audits cost several hundred dollars and fixes can be time-consuming. That makes it tricky to agree on when and how homeowners should be pushed into the process.
One obvious moment: when a house goes up for sale. The California Assembly passed legislation requiring audit and repairs at a home’s time of sale, but it died in a Senate committee.
“It frankly would create a lot of green jobs as you have people moving into that sector, but the realtors … don’t like it because they think it gets in the way of the transaction,” says Bill Pennington, manager of buildings and appliances at the California Energy Commission.
Getting real estate agents to add an energy-efficiency rating in the database of homes for sale would dramatically boost awareness of energy audits. The ratings would act like an auto fuel-efficiency sticker for homes, says Golden.
Proposals to pair home energy audits and retrofits with solar installations have raised concerns with the solar industry. It would mean consumers have to get separate contractors, says Sue Kateley, head of the California Solar Energy Industries Association. “It’s really good for the consumer to do [energy efficiency] first, but the timing is really difficult to overcome.”
Golden, who emphasizes he isn’t anti-solar, says efficiency upgrades and solar should be paired. “We play in the same sandbox. When [policymakers] pull the lever, they are not only helping solar, they are hurting energy efficiency.”
He says retrofits don’t have to hold up a solar sale: Require the audit upfront, install the solar system, and give consumers a year to make efficiency upgrades.
Sterkel of the solar initiative worries the proposal would increase installers’ paperwork and delay collection of state rebates. Ultimately, she says, her priority is to drive up demand for solar so as to bring down its price.
The utilities commission is asking for public input about whether to scale back its solar subsidies after Congress extended federal solar tax credits recently.
“If we are ever going to meet our carbon goals … existing buildings have to be tackled somehow. And so integration of energy efficiency and [rooftop solar] has to happen,” says Andrew McAllister, director of the California Center for Sustainable Energy.