Renewable Energy and Cost Saving Opportunities for Homeowners and Renters

The climate crisis has arrived and even though it is unevenly distributed, it affects all of us, some more inequitably than others. As homeowners or renters, individuals can take action to help address this problem – and reap benefits for themselves, by using renewable energy and reducing their energy consumption.

Middlebury College’s Energy2028 commitment sets several goals for the campus: 100% renewable energy sourcing, cutting energy use by 25%, divesting the endowment from fossil fuels, and weaving these initiatives into our educational mission. Meeting those goals helps address the climate crisis by reducing carbon emissions and other harmful air pollution (which tends to impact low-income communities more than others), cut our energy bills, signal our support for a non-fossil fuel-based economy, and better prepares our students to take on the big challenge of climate change.

Homeowners, landlords and renters can also join in this ambitious initiative by focusing on their own energy footprint and how they spend and invest their dollars. Here are a number of ways that can be accomplished.

100% Renewable Energy – Electricity

Homeowners and landlords on behalf of their renters can take advantage of a number of solar power financial incentives from sales tax exemptions to sizable federal tax credits. There are also net metering provisions that allow homeowners to “bank” any excess renewable electricity generation and use them during times when the amount of solar electricity generated is lower than what is being consumed.

Solar project developers offer a range of financing options from outright purchase to long-term leasing. In general, solar electricity can save users a significant amount of money over the long term (around 20 years). Outright purchase tends to be more advantageous but requires up-front capital that may not be available. Lease options tend to make owning solar electricity much more affordable on a monthly basis and avoids the up-front capital costs.

If your roof or site is not suitable for solar you can still benefit by participating in community based solar projects. These are projects that site larger solar arrays on someone else’s land and then sell shares in the system. Buyers can purchase shares equal to their average electricity consumption and use those shares to substitute for the electricity they use at their house.

In the greater Middlebury area, the Acorn Renewable Energy Co-op of Middlebury is developing a new community solar project open to any Vermont resident with a Green Mountain Power electric meter. The project has received its permits and will be located on the capped landfill in Bristol.  Financing at advantageous rates is available to qualified borrowers through the National Bank of Middlebury.

The Vermont Energy Action Network also maintain an energy dashboard that has abundant information and resources to help renters and homeowners find solutions for their individual circumstances. You can find other community solar projects there as well. The Vermont Public Service Board provides a good selection of solar energy related resources too.

100% Renewable Energy – Heating

Many Vermonters already heat their homes with renewable energy in the form of wood or wood pellets. Vermont’s forests are pretty well managed overall and are generally harvested at rates below their annual net growth which helps assure this is a renewable, low-carbon, and very local energy source. You can get a good sense of the status of Vermont’s forests here. As long as Vermont’s forests are growing faster than they are being harvested, using wood can also help reduce carbon emissions as the carbon emitted by wood burning is more quickly reabsorbed by forests than fossil fuels which took hundreds of millions of years to be turned into oil and gas deep below the land surface.

Common fossil fuel heating sources in Vermont are #2 fuel oil, propane, and natural gas. These all contribute significant carbon emissions and are transported much further and go through many more processing stages than wood does in general, i.e, they require more energy to get to your doorstep than wood does. If you are not able to switch to wood for heating, look into the feasibility of an air source heat pump which runs on electricity. These heating systems have become very efficient and can produce enough heat for most residential uses down to around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. If your residence is well-insulated, a back-up source of heat for below zero times may not be needed.

Check with your electricity provider for incentive programs to help households afford a heat pump. Lower income households may also receive additional rebates or other benefits. If you own or rent a mobile or modular home, or are considering purchasing one take a look at a net-zero model like ones made by Vermod or other manufacturers.

If neither wood or a heat pump is a good choice for you and your furnace is old (15 years or more) consider replacing it with a new one, most of which are far more efficient at turning fuel into heat. The difference can be on the order of 20 to 25% better which means significantly lower heating bills and a faster return on the cost of a new furnace. Check with Efficiency Vermont and your fuel supply company to see if they offer any incentives for furnace upgrades.

Energy Conservation and Efficiency

The best form of energy from an environmental, economic, and social justice perspective is energy not used. The less you use, the smaller the impacts associated with energy production: fewer trees cut down, fewer wells drilled in sensitive areas, less pollution emitting stacks at fuel refineries threatening the health of nearby residents, less mining for rare earth minerals to make solar panels and components, fewer acres of land flooded to generate hydroelectricity and so on.

A good first step is to have an energy audit done to generate a custom list of energy efficiency and conservation measures and costs for your space, and what difference they can make in usage and utility bills. Whether you are a homeowner or a landlord this can provide a roadmap to greater savings and better comfort for occupants. For older buildings payback on investment can be very quick. There are numerous incentives available to help cover the cost of an audit and in some cases you can have the cost of the audit credited back if you undertake some of the conservation/efficiency measures identified by the audit. If you are feeling handy Efficiency Vermont can provide phone consultations to help you get started. More information about that and/or hiring a contractor is here. Also consult your utility company. Burlington Electric Department, Green Mountain Power, Vermont Gas Systems and Vermont Electric Cooperative all offer programs and incentives for their customers.

If you are in the market for a new mobile or modular home take a look at the option of zero-energy ready modular homes available at Vermod. Many mobile home manufacturers offer high performance energy features in their product lines as well. Look for EnergyStar certified products to assure high performance in any new home whether mobile, modular or new construction on site, including apartment buildings.

Whether you rent or own, there are numerous energy saving changes that you can make to reduce demand and lower the costs of heating or electricity where you live and that you can do yourself. Here are a few places to get started:

For Renters (and Homeowners too):

Energy Star Top 10 Tips for Renters

Tips for Renters and Rental Property Owners

13 Tips for Apartment Renters to Save Energy

For Vermonters

Vermont Energy Dashboard Resources

Investing in Fossil Free Funds

Another way individuals can have a positive influence on addressing the climate crisis is by choosing to invest any extra funds or allocate retirement contributions to funds that explicitly exclude investment in companies that are in the fossil fuel business. You’ll be joining a large number of investors who have already done so, nearly 15 trillion dollars to date, including Middlebury College. If you are looking for a place to start here is a helpful resource to help you choose investments that fit your needs and circumstances. Voting with your pocketbook sends a powerful message to corporations and investment managers that you care and want a speedy transition to a fossil-free economy.

All of the above options and choices are good first steps. Start with one that seems most appropriate for your situation and use your success to take the next. Your shift to renewable energy and/or a more efficient use of energy in your living space, or where you invest any savings does make a difference. Telling your family and friends about what you’ve done can help leverage your impact into a larger, collective impact – which is how change at a greater scale happens. Addressing the climate crisis requires us all to do everything we can. Your actions matter!

by Jack Byrne, Dean of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs. email: jmbyrne@middlebury.edu