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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Save Money, Save the Environment: Go Green

Energy-efficient homes, solar power and alt-fuel vehicles are part of the mix

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With gas prices soaring again and energy costs slated to grow in the long term, it's a great time to consider ways to use less energy and reduce your negative impact on the environment.

The best first step isn't anything new, glamorous or particularly difficult.

"The No. 1 way that residents can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels is to be more energy efficient, to conserve energy," said Matt Howard, the director of the city of Milwaukee's Office of Environmental Sustainability. "That's the easiest way, and it tends to be the cheapest as well."

The city of Milwaukee and other organizations are offering a range of programs to shrink fossil fuel consumption at home and on the road.

Use Less Energy at Home and Work

Milwaukee residents can participate in Me2, the federally funded Milwaukee Energy Efficiency program, which helps homeowners and businesses reduce their consumption and harness financial incentives when making upgrades.

"Me2 will walk the homeowner through the entire energy-efficiency upgrade process, either to help them with an energy audit or to help them find a contractor or to help them on the back end to make sure that the work was done correctly," Howard said.

He said Milwaukee's older housing stock means that many homes aren't insulated properly or have outdated heating or cooling systems.

Almost 2,000 homeowners have taken advantage of the Me2 program, which has resulted in almost 600 energy audits. An energy audit of a single-family home costs $100, but that will be rebated if the homeowner makes the recommended upgrades. Homeowners have seen their energy bills drop about 15% after an energy audit, Howard said.

One of the city's partners in Me2 is Summit Credit Union, which is providing low-interest loans to participants. The program is also offering some spring specials. It has $1,000 grants for fixing some health and safety issues (such as removing asbestos) and special pricing on Energy Star appliances. It also can connect some participants with federal tax credits. For more information, go to www.smartenergypays.com.


Is Solar Right for You?


After homeowners reduce their fossil fuel consumption through energy-efficiency upgrades, relying on renewable energy sources can be the next step.

To that end, in 2008 the U.S. Department of Energy made Milwaukee one of 25 "solar America cities" around the country, which means that the city's Milwaukee Shines program is utilizing federal and other resources to bring down the cost of going solar.

"Solar is viable here in Milwaukee," said Amy Heart, the city's solar program manager.

Solar energy can bring down—or perhaps eliminate—a homeowner's electricity costs in the long term. Although a homeowner will likely stay connected to We Energies and tap into the grid during the winter months or at night, a home's solar system can produce all or most of an energy-efficient home's electricity needs.

"In July your bill may be next to nothing and you may even have a credit, depending on how much energy you use," Heart said. "Then in winter you may have a bill in a given month. But the goal for some in the long run is to equal out to zero."

Even better, solar produces its maximum energy during the daytime, at the same time the traditional grid is working at capacity. Therefore, a solar owner can sell electricity back to the utility at peak rates because it's in such high demand, then purchase the electricity back at nighttime, when his or her solar panels aren't producing electricity.

But solar's long-term sustainability is what's so attractive to homeowners and businesses. Solar does require an investment upfront. Heart said a system for a typical Milwaukee home, after federal tax credits, would cost between $5,000 and $10,000. But that system would last at least 25 years—and produce at least some energy 40 years down the road. During those decades the solar-equipped homeowner would pay negligible utility bills, at the same time fossil-fuel-sourced energy would become more expensive.

"When you buy solar, you are buying power for 25, 40 years in one chunk, which is sort of hard for people to wrap their head around," said Brent Brucker, general manager of Helios Solar Works, which manufactures solar panels in the Menomonee Valley. "It's pretty expensive, but it's pretty rare that you go to the grocery store and buy 40 years' worth of food."

He said one bright spot for solar enthusiasts is that financing for solar energy is becoming more accessible, sort of like car loans. Summit Credit Union is a partner in the Milwaukee Shines program, and is providing $2 million in capital to finance loans.

"Banks are starting to believe and realize that when you put a system up, you can bank on it—it will produce electricity over this amount of time," Brucker said. "When you have this predictability, and solar modules have very low maintenance costs, then you can finance around it."

To learn more about Milwaukee Shines, go to city.milwaukee.gov/milwaukeeshines or attend the city's Earth Day Celebration on Friday, April 20, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the Market Street Corridor next to City Hall. In partnership with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, the city will introduce its Milwaukee Power Pack effort to educate homeowners on solar energy and connect them to local solar installers.


Consuming Less Gas

Milwaukee drivers got sticker shock recently when the price for a gallon of gas spiked beyond $4. Fortunately, there are other options.

Most consumers are familiar with hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius or the Chevy Volt, which use electrical power and gas, or ethanol-fueled vehicles.

But Emily DeVillers of Wisconsin Clean Cities said that other green vehicles are emerging on the market.

For example, the Honda Civic GX runs on natural gas, which costs about $2 per gallon and emits far less carbon monoxide and other pollutants than petroleum, and the Detroit automakers have announced that they will introduce trucks that run on natural gas.

GO Riteway airport shuttle vans use propane, which costs about $2 per gallon.

While the Prius and Volt are hybrid electric cars, the Nissan Leaf is completely electric and can be driven about 100 miles before it needs to be plugged in.

As an indication of electric vehicles' increasing popularity, the city of Milwaukee has installed three charging stations in the past month—one at Discovery World, another on Brady Street and a third in a parking garage on Water Street—so commuters and visitors can charge up before returning home. Environmental Sustainability Director Howard said the city plans on installing two more in the short term.

"Granted, the market penetration for electric vehicles isn't all that great right now, but it's one of those chicken-and-egg things," Howard said. "We want to have some infrastructure available for those vehicles without getting too far ahead of the market."

DeVillers said drivers who aren't ready or able to buy an alt-fuel vehicle can get tips on reducing gas consumption at www.fueleconomy.gov. And walking, biking, carpooling or taking the bus even one day a week can cut fuel use without much hardship.

To learn more about green vehicles, Wisconsin Clean Cities is hosting "Driving Toward 2020: Green Vehicles Workshop" at the Downtown campus of MATC on May 4. For more information, go to www.gvw.eventbrite.com