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Opening the green toolbox

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There is an array of tools available for Eagle County residents to employ toward reducing energy use and helping the environment.

The question is, are people using them?

Not to the extent that they could, and that is hurting citizens economically, Eagle County Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Yuri Kostick said.



“Reducing energy use means saving money,” Kostick said.

It also means saving resources and helping the environment, but sometimes those issues get bogged down in political or ideological rhetoric. However, Kostick sees the sustainability movement gaining traction, not only locally but nationally and internationally, as the discussion moves from the topic of environmentalism to



economics.

But in the weeks and months ahead, look for the county to amp up its economic energy

message.



Recently, Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison counties successfully teamed up to win a $5 million Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant through the U.S. Department of Energy. The grant program is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and represents a presidential priority to deploy cheap, clean and reliable energy technologies across the country.

According to Kostick, the money will be shared by the three counties over the next three years to educate and promote energy-efficiency programs. The counties are currently writing the plan for how they will sell energy-reduction efforts and how they will measure efficiency targets.

Kostick said there is a lot of education to be done to let people know what’s available to them. Additionally, there is an entire toolbox of items for homeowners to consider.

Eagle County itself doesn’t have a specific department dedicated solely to the environmental issues. What it does have is an Environmental Health Department dedicated to issues including water and air quality, a focus on the environmentally friendly Eco-Build guidelines in the Community Development department, a focus on recycling and other measures in its landfill operations and an organization-wide awareness of environmental efforts.

Noting that various employees and offices have a stake in the overall sustainability effort, Kostick said the county has a virtual department – a location on the county website where people can go to learn about programs and issues. That differs from some of the county’s neighbors, including Pitkin County, where there is a stand-alone Energy Management Department.

As an organization, Kostick said the county is dedicated to improving energy awareness in the areas.

“We have 500 employees. We have to think we can get some good ideas from that,” he said.

In particular, the county is looking at improving its own building efficiencies. That means taking a more critical look at routine maintenance, for example.

“It doesn’t make sense environmentally or economically to switch out something that works,” Kostick said. However, when a boiler goes down or a lighting fixture needs to be replaced, the county is now looking more critically at its options.

“If our buildings run efficiently, it means we are saving money. So you don’t put in an 88 percent efficient boiler, you put in a 95 percent efficient boiler,” Kostick said.

Last fall, the county proposed its Energy Smart ballot measure. County voters authorized the Eagle County Commissioners to create an “energy smart loan” program that would help homeowners pay for energy-efficient home renovations. The loans would be repaid through special assessments on homeowners’ property tax bills.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s two biggest mortgage buyers, have objected to loans that place a “senior lien” on property and put lenders in a subordinate position in case of default. The Federal Home Finance Agency last week backed the mortgage agencies.

If Fannie and Freddie won’t buy mortgages, it becomes far more difficult to re-sell home loans. A red flag from Fannie means trouble for anyone trying to sell a home.

Until those agencies relent – and so far they are standing firm in the face of mounting political pressure – Eagle County’s program is stalled.

Kostick said there is currently discussion of new legislation in Washington, D.C. aimed at assisting efforts such as Energy Smart. Additionally, lawsuits that could resolve the issue are under consideration in various locations around the country.

Was it a mistake to go to the voters with the Energy Smart proposal before the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issues were resolved? Kostick doesn’t believe it was.

“When we were researching this program, we had contacts with contractors in Boulder County who said their program kept their doors open,” he said.

In that case, with the recession killing new home construction, Kostick said the Boulder County construction contacts said they were able to keep their businesses alive by doing retrofit, energy-efficiency projects.

“This program still has such promise,” Kostick said.

According to the Eagle County website, “The ECO-Build regulations were adopted to promote energy- and material-efficient building design and construction practices.”

ECO-Build applies to all new construction, as well as additions or remodels of more than 50 percent of the existing floor area, and exterior energy uses such as snowmelt, spas and pools. A completed ECO-Build checklist must be submitted along with the subject building permit application.

“ECO-Build was never meant to be punitive. It was meant to be a tool to get people to build a better building,” Kostick said.

But for better or worst, the ECO-Build regulations came on line at the same time the construction industry tanked. So while the county has rules for how to build better homes or commercial buildings, no one is pulling permits.

“I think it is important to take the long view in these things,” Kostick said. He said that community surveys have always indicated that residents value the natural environment and are concerned about the local cost of living. “Our values don’t go away,” he said. “Right now, we have a serious concern about jobs, but that doesn’t affect our core values. You don’t trash what makes this area special.”

Plumbing contractor Chuck Smallwood is bewildered when it comes to the gap that exists between programs and people.

“I don’t know how you get people to take advantage of free money,” he said. “It’s really crazy that people aren’t taking advantage of these programs, but they aren’t”

Smallwood is the owner of Eco-Tech, a business that specializes in plumbing, heating and solar contracting. “We have some real alternatives that make a lot of sense for this environment and they are rebatable projects. But the reality is our phone isn’t ringing.”

Smallwood said that no matter how attractive a program is, if homeowners don’t participate then the effort is a bust. He added that too often homeowners are scared off of energy-efficient upgrades because of high up-front costs. He believes that in the current economy, people are more interested in saving money and repairing systems rather than investing in improvements. But that might not be the best overall plan, he said.

The trick to climbing out of the recession, in Smallwood’s mind, is to find a balance between spending and saving. And he believes paying for an energy-saving system accomplishes both. He uses his own home as an example.

Smallwood recently installed new heating and solar systems in his home.

“When I did my new system, I paid for 50 percent of it with rebates,” Smallwood said.

His total rebate was in the $12,000 range.

“When someone is going to give you half the cost of an upgrade, you should do it. Even though it was difficult to afford, it was the right thing to do,” he said. “What I am seeing is I can talk to people about this stuff and they think its a wonderful idea. But they aren’t interested in spending money on it.”

But maybe a ticking clock and additional publicity from the county and other venues will push homeowners into action.

The window is closing for some of the rebate options. Some programs will expire Dec. 31.

To learn more about state programs that are available, visit http://www.recharge

colorado.com. Additional rebate options are listed at the Holy Cross Energy website, http://www.holycross.com.


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