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Idaho homes slashing emissions and bills through energy efficiency

A repair person looking at an electric heat pump.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
South Central Community Action Partnership weatherizes homes and provides energy efficiency upgrades for low-income residents in the Magic Valley and Blaine County.

About five years ago, John Reuter and his family built their dream house in the Wood River Valley. The two-story home with a wrap-around porch sits on a tree-lined block in old Hailey.

"That the house maybe has been here a long time, is the look we were going for," Reuter said.

But this house is different from its neighbors. It produces as much energy as it consumes. That means it’s "net zero."

"First, we're reducing the amount of energy that the house consumes. And then we're producing energy," Reuter said, "in this case with a relatively small solar panel array."

Residential energy use accounts for about 20% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

John Reuter
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
John Reuter, an energy efficiency expert and solar panel installer, built a net zero home in Hailey.

Reuter has worked in the energy efficiency field for more than a decade. He helps builders construct to code and installs solar panels.

So, he knew a net zero home would help the climate. Based on his experience in the building industry, he also knew it would be more comfortable and healthy for his family of four, including two small children.

"It's the only kind of house that I wanted to build," he said.

This house needs less energy because of a few important elements: triple-pane windows, super thick, insulated walls, and an all-electric heating and cooling system.

Reuter said his electric heat pump water heater might cost $1,500 more than the conventional version. But he said net zero is all about tradeoffs; you'll may pay more up front, but save over time.

"We have no energy bill here," he said. "If you figure a normal home would have $2,000 a year, that money could be applied towards a mortgage."

But Reuter knows most people aren't in a position to build a house from the ground up.

Here's what he calls the lowest hanging fruit for energy efficiency: Switch all your light bulbs to LEDs, up the insulation of walls and air ducts in your attic and crawl space and watch for air leakage from places like window trim and can lights.

"That's letting heat escape from the home, passively, all the time," Reuter said.

That's why Rod Burk is patching up the walls on a mobile home attached to a regular house in rural Jerome County.

Burk is with the South Central Community Action Partnership. It's one of six nonprofits in Idaho that receive U.S. Department of Energy funds — distributed through the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare — to weatherize low-income houses. That involves making repairs that keep homes cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, which saves energy.

"Everything is free to the client," Burk said.

This spring, he got an emergency call from the homeowner Arturo Aguilar. Aguilar's heat was out. He shared the home with six relatives, including three grandchildren.

With gusty winds in the high desert, it was still chilly.

"It was not very hot because my heater is not good," Aguilar said.

House repair
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
A weatherization worker repairs the water heater at a home in rural Jerome County.

Burk's team came and replaced the furnace with an electric heat pump -- like one in Reuter's net zero house.

Then, they came back for the weatherization. They installed insulation under the floor where there had been none before and sealed up the cracks that appeared where the mobile home attached from the rest of the house.

Burk's team weatherized close to 50 homes in south central Idaho last year. About 275 homes are repaired through the Weatherization Assistance Program across the state in a given year.

The federal government estimates that every repaired home through the program prevents 2.65 metric tons of CO2 from being emitted each year — the equivalent to forgoing driving a gas-powered car 7,000 miles a year.

Burk said another big benefit is the cost-savings for homeowners like Aguilar.

"He was so happy that this was being done," Burk said. "That's what has kept me involved in a lot of this, is just knowing the satisfaction, getting a big hug from a client or a letter that says, 'Hey, my power bills came down. Thank you.'"

The Department of Energy estimates weatherization recipients save $372 or more per year in energy bills.

But, there are obstacles to broader energy efficiency adoption.

Some building contractors aren’t knowledgeable about the latest technologies, so might even discourage electric upgrades.

Plus, the low-income weatherization organizations are short-staffed and their waitlists are long.

Another one, Reuter said, is the Idaho legislature’s moves to weaken energy efficiency building codes, such as a bill passed last session that revoked local energy codes going above and beyond the state's.

“Energy codes are really construction quality codes," he said.

What to know about incentives

Still, home energy efficiency is gaining momentum, and there are more incentives to help consumers make upgrades.

The Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act included billions of dollars for reducing fossil fuel use in the home. It funded tax credits can get you 30% back on the cost of an energy audit or high-rated windows. Additionally there are two home energy efficiency rebate programs, offering up to $8,000 and $14,000 for upgrades respectively.

State energy offices are charged with setting up the rebate programs — if they choose. Idaho, for instance, was allocated nearly $81 million to implement these programs.

Although several states have already submitted and received initial funds to start setting up the programs since the rebate applications opened in July, Idaho's Governor's Office of Energy and Mineral Resources is currently evaluating them. It said they would need the legislature's sign-off, and it's uncertain when the funds might be available to Idaho residents, as the programs are not part of the office's current budget request.

Meanwhile, local utilities offer another source of energy efficiency financial programs. Eligible Idaho Power customers can get home energy audits for a discount or cash incentives such as $50 for a smart thermostat or $500 for an electric ductless heat pump.

Idaho Power also partners with organizations like South Central Community Action Partnership to weatherize more homes and provide energy-saving upgrades to low-income and near-low-income customers.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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