Program offers free energy improvements
Here’s a look at the income limits for participating in the new Colorado’s Affordable Residential Energy Program:
• 1 person, up to $48,320.
• 2 people, up to $55,200.
• 3 people, up to $62,080.
• 4 people, up to $68,960.
• 5 people, up to $74,480.
• 6 people, up to $80,000.
EAGLE COUNTY — We all know about the cost of living in mountain resort areas. Home lighting and heating can be a particular surprise for newcomers. A new program for lower-middle-income residents aims to help ease that particular strain.
The local Energy Smart Colorado program — a joint effort that includes several other mountain counties and the state government — this fall launched a program that can provide free energy-efficiency improvements to both renters and owners in the area.
The idea behind the program was to fill a void along the income spectrum. People with very low family incomes can qualify for the Low-income Energy Assistance program. People who earn more than the area’s median income are presumed able to be able to pay for improvements or, in the case of subsidized improvements, they’re presumably able to wait to be reimbursed.
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The new program called Colorado’s Affordable Residential Energy provides improvements at no cost. Sometimes, those improvements can be done immediately.
John-Ryan Lockman is the Energy Programs Manager at Avon’s Walking Mountains Science Center, and runs the county’s Energy Smart program.
Lockman explained how the program works:
Someone who falls within the income limits can either walk into Walking Mountains’ office to fill out a two-page application. The application can also be completed through the Walking Mountains website.
Those who are qualified — either homeowners or renters — then schedule a visit from an energy coach — usually Lockman. That person will visit the home, evaluate possible problems and make recommendations for solutions.
“We’ll install as much as we can right then,” Lockman said. Those immediate aids range from energy-efficient light bulbs to low-flow shower heads and modern, programmable thermostats.
Depending on what the investigation finds, other upgrades can be scheduled, ranging from insulation to air sealing around windows to, in rare cases, refrigerator replacement.
“We’d prefer to spend money on insulation — that’s the best payback,” Lockman said.
Besides efficiency, energy coaches also look for safety problems including possible carbon monoxide leaks and the presence of radon gas.
Luke Ilderton is the director of energy efficiency programs with Energy Outreach Colorado, the group that’s managing the latest program. He said energy assessments often uncover safety issues, particularly in older homes.
“We’ve seen furnaces being vented into attics,” Ilderton said. “People often don’t realize they could really pay the ultimate price if they don’t get (safety problems) taken care of.”
The program is intended to be as simple as possible, but there are a number of parties involved. Just what needs to be fixed often determines who’s paying for the work or materials.
For instance, Holy Cross Energy will pay the full cost of improvements in all-electric homes in that utility’s service area. Gas companies provide funding for work to water heaters and furnaces.
Lowering ‘A Huge Stress’
As a nonprofit electric co-op, Holy Cross is governed by a seven-member elected board. Mary Wiener, of Holy Cross, said that board in 2011 approved a plan that called for participation in an income-qualified program such as the one just launched.
Utility bills can be “a huge stress” for families,” Wiener said. “A small apartment or condo can be $250 or $300 per month.”
Those bills, in turn, can lead residents to turning their thermostats way, way down, with people wearing coats in their homes.
Holy Cross hopes this year to reach 15 families in its entire service area, Wiener said. That doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t.
“But this is a hard group of folks to reach,” Wiener said. “People don’t understand what’s available — they’re suspicious of getting something for nothing — or their pride won’t allow them to accept help. Everything we do is confidential.”
And, while both homeowners and tenants are eligible for the new program, landlords must agree to the improvements.
Landlords usually approve the work, Ilderton said. But there are exceptions, often due to the suspicion of improvements at no cost.
While this is the first year for Colorado’s Affordable Residential Energy program, Ilderton said he expects it to continue in coming years.
“We want to expand it, form new partnerships and work in new counties,” Ilderton said. “It’s about a community coming together, and (utilities) realizing their customers have a hard time keeping up with home energy costs.”
And, Lockman said, the work itself is more than worthwhile.
“It’s very satisfying to be able to help people economically,” he said. Lower utility bills make it easier for families to afford everything from food to medical to clothes for the kids.
“That to me is the real message,” Lockman said. “I’m excited about it.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.
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