Retrofitting your house to save energy can be pricey, but a variety of incentives and tax credits are available in Oregon that make going green easier on your pocketbook.
Gregory Peterson saved about $3,100 when he replaced windows and added insulation to his East Medford home. That works out to 35 percent of the original cash outlay of $8,000. His savings came not only through "cash-back" incentives from the nonprofit Energy Trust, but from state and federal tax credits, as well.
"I first heard about this program through a TV commercial. The contractors I used were familiar with the Energy Trust program. They filled out and sent in all the paperwork (for the rebates) for me," Peterson explains.
Each building contractor Peterson worked with had completed a training course with the Energy Trust and received certification as a "trade ally."
A state law passed in 2009 established a 3-percent fee for all customers of Oregon electric utilities. The money collected with this fee, along with additional funding established through a 2007 state law, is available to utility customers for improving the energy efficiency of their homes. The Portland-based nonprofit Energy Trust was established to distribute these funds.
"Since 2002, the Energy Trust has helped Oregonians avoid emitting 3 million tons of carbon dioxide. That's the equivalent of 525,000 cars taken off the road every year. Homeowners and businesses have saved $440 million (since the program started)," says Lizzie Rubado, spokeswoman for the Energy Trust.
As the word has spread, more people are taking advantage of these cash incentives. In 2008 alone, Oregonians saved $144 million, according to Rubado.
The most popular collaboration with the Energy Trust, says Rubado, is insulation. "Almost every house — even newer ones — can benefit from additional insulation. There are a variety of ways to retrofit walls with no cosmetic impact. Expect to save 20 percent on your total energy bill."
In Peterson's 1,800-square-foot house, contractors replaced his single-paned, aluminum-frame windows with new double-paned models with vinyl siding. Insulation was added to the attic and floor, which brought immediate benefits that have nothing to do with cash.
"I can feel it in my feet — the floors are no longer cold," says Peterson, who often walks barefoot in his house in the winter. "I'm not always standing by the window (to feel the benefits of better windows), but I'm always standing on the floor."
To get started with the Energy Trust, you'll need to schedule an energy evaluation of your house. Of the two types of evaluations, the Home Energy Review is the shortest, and it's free. A building professional will spend about an hour at your house and perform a visual inspection: lighting, windows, heating system and insulation.
The Home Performance Test is a more rigorous inspection that lasts about four hours and costs $200. The inspector will use a series of diagnostic tools, including infrared cameras, to identify priority heat-loss areas.
If you opt for the free evaluation, expect to wait a long time.
"We were on a waiting list for six months before the energy auditor came out," says Katherine Young, who replaced windows and added insulation to her West Medford home in 2008.
Young's house was built in 1943 and uses electric, fan-blown heat from a heating element. After the work was completed, she noticed an immediate difference.
"When we turn our heat on now, it stays. Before, we could feel the breeze — we had no insulation in our floors and walls," Young says.
Young's financial return on her investment ended up being much less than Peterson's. Of the $6,200 she invested, she realized rebates of $900 — less than 15 percent. She discovered late in the process that the windows the contractor installed didn't meet the strict energy requirements necessary for the better cash incentives. The contractor also never told her about potential tax credits. Her advice? Choose your contractors carefully and get multiple bids.
After the work is completed, the Energy Trust sends an inspector out to check on the work before the rebate check is cut. Young praises the Energy Trust for this process.
"They found problems and made the contractor fix things. They want to make sure everything is done right and that contractors are being held to the highest standards," Young explains.
The savings continue long after construction is completed.
Young's power bill for January 2009 was $144, compared to the preconstruction bill of $165 from 2008, a savings of nearly 13 percent.
With energy costs going nowhere but up, savings go up over time. Gregory Peterson has done the math on his energy retrofit. He likes what he sees.
"If I live here for 10 years, it will pay me back," says Peterson, "So why not do it?"