Homeowners across New York state are jumping at the opportunity to update their homes and downsize their utility bills.
“More and more homeowners have started making their homes energy efficient,” said Chris Straile, owner of TS Performance Products a company that works with the Syracuse Center of Excellence. The center is an organization of more than 200 businesses and universities with programs that include technologies for energy efficiency.
Those homeowners can get help from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA. The most popular program for homeowners, called Home Performance with ENERGY STAR, has attracted nearly 14,000 people since 2001, according to the energy authority. Last year alone, 6,847 homes were updated with financial help from this program.
Getting help is simple. To get a free energy audit, a family’s annual income must be less than 200 percent of the county average. In Onondaga County, that means any family making less than $131,400 annually can get the free audit. The auditor tells the homeowner how much energy they use and how they can save money with specific updates. Through low-cost financing and rebates, the state’s energy authority will help the residents pay for updates.
Funding for the state energy authority programs comes from three sources: taxes, utility bill surcharges and penalties paid to the government by some energy producers. About $10 million annually, comes from state taxes. Other money comes from a small surcharge found on utility bills. The rest comes from power producers, who contribute approximately $112 million annually in penalties for emitting more carbon dioxide than is allowed by state law.
The state energy authority “stresses a whole-house approach during updates,” said Dayle Zatlin, assistant director of communications at the authority. “We look at your furnace, your water boiler, your appliances, and how much air is escaping through cracks. We check the whole house out for free. So people are like ‘why not?’”
Homeowners can find contractors to work with through the energy authority’s website. One contractor, Green Homes America, updated 191 homes last year.
The process to qualify for funding is becoming harder, said Maggie Maurer, a certified building analyst with Green Homes America. “Over the last two years government has restricted what qualifies for financial assistance,” said Maurer. “Four years ago, you could get new windows and hot water heaters. Now you’re lucky to get a new furnace to pass the regulations.”
In addition, many people don’t know about the programs, said Maurer.
Some critics say these programs should not exist. Take, for example, Andrew Morriss, a professor of law at the University of Alabama and co-author of the book, “The False Promise of Green Energy.”
Morriss adopts a libertarian viewpoint that the free market will encourage people to make their homes more energy efficient. “If people think energy updates will save them money, they will update their house,” said Morriss. “We don’t need the government to trick people into updating their homes.”
Supporters of government-sponsored programs argue that energy updates are a win-win situation. They are good for the environment and good for the homeowner’s wallet, said Straile of the Syracuse Center of Excellence.
“People are more aware now than ever of how much energy they use,” said Straile. “Especially during these economic times, you can’t ignore the savings that come from updating your home.”
(Ben Klein is a senior with dual majors in magazine journalism and political science.)