CLIMATEWIRE | In 2010, the Dutch government launched a program to sharply cut carbon dioxide emissions from one of the world’s largest and most problematic sources: homes.
It put up $40 million and called it “Energiesprong,” or “Energy Jump” in English. The idea was to convert drafty old row houses into solar and electric heat-pump-powered, well-insulated homes that reduced their CO2 emissions to near zero.
The first phase ended with the refurbishment of around 6,000 homes in the Netherlands, but it has since spread across northern Europe, where — retranslated as the “Mustb0” program — it has spread to apartment buildings.
Multiple innovations have led to lower-cost ways to refit homes using standardized methods and mass-produced materials. There are also financing schemes that use potential energy savings to help reduce the cost.
So perhaps it was inevitable that in March the Biden administration announced a $32 million project to start an American version. It aims at refitting homes and apartments, starting with 30 projects in six states.
“We’re in an all-out sprint to beat the climate crisis, and that race runs straight through our nation’s building sector,” said Jennifer Granholm, the secretary of the Department of Energy. She noted that the U.S. building sector was ripe for renovation. It uses 40 percent of the nation’s energy and 75 percent of its electricity.
But it may be a while before the sprinting begins. American homeowners, the real estate industry, and apartment and homebuilders don’t seem ready to put on their running shoes just yet.
Last month, the National Association of Realtors released the results of polling a random sample of 2,652 of its members. The headline announced homebuyers have “renewed interest” in homes “with green features.” But fine print revealed that only 19 percent of the real estate agents thought that the prospect of climate change was important to home sales.
Seventy-six percent of them doubted that a more energy-efficient home would raise the selling price of a house.
Experts in environmental groups, cities and others working on the U.S. program predict that there will be a “learning curve” involved in bringing the message of climate change home because Americans are much more focused on the energy efficiency of their cars. Some companies in the U.S. construction industry have shown interest because they worry that competitors from Europe and China may export prefabricated materials needed for speedy home refits if U.S. companies don’t start making them.
One of the projects being prepared to spark more interest in energy-efficient homes are the Eva White Apartments, two adjoining seven-story apartment buildings in Boston.
Like many buildings built in 1967, their units have single-pane windows and poorly insulated walls. They are drafty in the winter and ill-prepared for the warmer summers climate change will bring because the buildings lack central air conditioning.
They are owned by the Boston Housing Authority, and the elderly, low-income renters who live there are sheltered from rising energy bills.
But Winn Development LLC, a Boston-based company that owns apartment buildings in 10 states, plans to buy the Eva White complex this year.
Why? Because cities like Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia have passed what are called carbon mandates. They require owners to manage and reduce CO2 emissions on apartment buildings. Winn is working with DOE and a coalition of cities and nonprofit groups to figure out more cost-effective ways to retrofit buildings to reduce their carbon emissions and their energy costs.
“No costs are going down in the construction industry,” notes Christina McPike, director of energy and sustainability for Winn. “It’s the opposite.” But if the coalition can use government subsidies to develop faster and less labor-intensive ways to do renovations, the resulting energy savings may help owners pay their mortgages.
This winter, construction will begin at the Eva White complex, and the most innovative aspect will be a 6-inch-thick facade of prefabricated panels to be wrapped around the outside of the buildings.
The panels consist mostly of insulation and a waterproof stucco-like covering. New windows will fit over older windows and pipes for a new central air conditioning and ventilation system will be hidden behind the panels.
“It’s like putting a windbreaker and a sweater on a building,” said Lucas Toffoli, a project leader for RMI, formerly called the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental group that is working with the coalition aimed at reducing building emissions.
The Boston project will be one of the first to be completed in the U.S. “Tenants can stay in their apartments, the bulk of the work can occur from the exterior,” Toffoli explained. “We will see how much we can streamline this through the first projects.”
Perhaps the most ambitious retrofitting project in the U.S. is just starting in Chicago, where the city has selected 10 projects, most of them small, single-family brick homes that were built between 80 to 100 years ago, before there were building codes.
The plan, like the Boston project, is to use heat pumps and better insulation to reduce energy costs and to add air conditioning, which most single-family homes in the city lack, but will need in the future.
The idea is to cut energy bills by over 50 percent and then get homeowners and real estate agents to inspect the value of the results, including lower energy bills and more comfortable living.
“We want people to be aware of the changes they could make that would be super important,” explained Lindy Wordlaw, associate director of Elevate Energy, a nonprofit at work on the project along with the city and Commonwealth Edison Co., Chicago’s main utility.
Chicago has set aside $180 million to support this and other climate change-related projects. If the idea of energy-saving homes catches on, it could help the city meet its goal to reduce emissions in the city by 62 percent by 2040 .
There are 400,000 single-family homes and small multifamily residences in the city. If they were all refurbished, the energy savings alone could reach $49 billion by 2050, according to a DOE estimate.
The Dutch government gambled on “Energiesprong” in 2010 with a few hundred homes. It has since found ways to use part of their future energy savings to help finance energy retrofits. Now it has six housing corporations working on a backlog of 110,000 homes.
Just where Chicago goes from here is unknown, but the city, once celebrated by the poet Carl Sandburg as the “city of big shoulders,” sees big challenges ahead. But it also has big dreams.
“This is like the biggest community organizing project ever,” Wordlaw said. “It can’t just be the sustainability and climate wonks out there. We need to have everybody involved.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.