Plugging the leaks

By Lawrence Cosentino

State, city go back to basics of conservation and efficiency

Last week, in a rambling home-turned-law-office near Lansing’s Old Town, a grim-looking man moved from room to room, pointing a yellow gun at every wall, window and corner.

The lawyers looked up from their desks.

Was he a jumpy cop? A tracker of poisonous spiders?

“This is the leakiest house I’ve ever seen,” declared Brad Mann, certified energy rater.

Let’s just say Mann is with homeland security. These days, tracking down wasted heat and electricity is a more serious matter than ever, and it chafes Mann that more glamorous energy issues seem to get all the attention.

“My veins pop out in my neck every time I talk about it,” Mann said.

As fossil fuels bake the planet and nascent technologies like wind and solar take precious time to develop, experts agree that tightened energy efficiency and conservation is the quickest and cheapest way to squeak our way through to a clean, renewable energy future.

“Fix the hole in the side of the boat that’s leaking water and then we’ll worry about getting a little better motor,” Mann said.

Mann is a local foot soldier in an unsung fossil fuel liberation army — not the designers of $40,000 hybrid plug-in cars or sleek wind turbines, but rear-guard, demand-side soldiers with a wad of caulk in their pockets.

“The problem is, a lot of this stuff isn’t very sexy,” green-conscious Lansing developer Gene Townsend complained.

Of course, that depends on your idea of sex. Bring the subject up with any energy wonk and you’ll hear the voluptuous phrase “low-hanging fruit” within 30 seconds.

In other words, it’s foolish to erect a high-tech ladder to alternative energy while ignoring the juicy blobs that are still on the ground, waiting to be picked.

Secret panel
The second American war of independence, like the first, is being fought house by house.

To do a full-on energy audit, Mann pulls off a door, replaces it with a door that has a blower, and depressurizes the building, inviting cold outside air to sneak inside.

Last week, Mann, a consultant for Comfort First of Lansing, cased out the Kaplan House on Washington Avenue, now the headquarters of Farhat & Story law firm.

On Mann’s hand-held monitor screen, the quaint 1895 mansion, designed by architect Darius Moon, looked like a house of horrors.

As the blower roared at Kaplan House, Mann went through every room, pointing his laser gun at every likely leak. Icy blue lines criss-crossed his monitor screen where cold air poured through invisible cracks, joints, and un-insulated walls.

“They found all these areas you wouldn’t think of,” said Jennifer McDaniel, coordinator for the historic Turner Dodge House, another recent audit victim. “You look at a window and it looks properly sealed.”

Sometimes the audits stir up unexpected excitement. While depressurizing the Turner Dodge House last year, Mann heard a sharp noise. A secret panel popped off a third-floor ballroom wall, revealing a passageway to the attic nobody knew about.

More often, the results are depressingly predictable: The windows need caulk, the top of the foundation is cracked and full of holes, the furnace is old, the walls or attic aren’t insulated.

“Part of what we’re faced with here as Americans is our existing housing stock,” Mann said. “Anything pre-1990 — they’re pieces of crap, and nobody seems to address them in a whole-house way.”

Bob Plunkett, an energy auditor with East Lansing non-profit Urban Options, sang the same song to a Foster Neighborhood group last month. Plunkett does full audits and less expensive walk-throughs, with free assistance available for low-income households.

“We look into furnaces and find dead mice and corrosion,” he said. “Obviously, they’re not changing the filter.”

Mann estimated that Michigan can cut its energy use 15 to 20 percent working on existing homes and buildings.

“They won’t be able to do that across the board with anything else,” he said.

If there’s an energy efficiency Yoda in Michigan, it’s Williamston’s Martin Kushler, utilities program director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

He’s spent years sifting data on efficiency programs in 35 states.

“The opportunities in Michigan are just extraordinary for energy efficiency,” Kushler declared.

In October 2008, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed an energy bill mandating savings that will ramp up to 1 percent a year by 2012.

Kushler said the law is a “good foundation.”

“It gets us back in the game of significant energy efficiency programs, but it by no means the ceiling of what could be possible and would be cost effective,” Kushler said.

He would like to see Michigan commit to “15 by 15,” or a 15 percent cut in energy use by 2015.

Energy efficiency programs, widespread in New England and West Coast states, combine massive educational drives informing consumers about energy-efficient practices and products with cash rebates for using those products. Some programs, like Wisconsin’s, go “upstream” to educate contractors about the best energy-efficient practices and even help them with marketing.

“We have about 20 years of experience operating these programs,” Kushler said. “We’ve worked out all the bugs.”

The rewards could be significant.

According to Kushler, a kilowatt of energy conserved costs about 3 cents, compared to 9 or 10 cents for a kilowatt from a coal plant.

In Lansing, the Board of Water and Light expects to roll out a major energy efficiency program by early spring 2009. Spokesman Mark Nixon said the program will be bid next week, and its outlines, much less its details, have yet to be worked out. Nixon said the BWL expects to choose a contractor to manage the program in January 2009.

Kushler will be watching the process at BWL, and across the state, with keen interest.

“The technical and economic potential tells us we could save 2, 3 percent a year,” Kushler said. That would meet all the new load growth in the state.

Fold in renewable energy initiatives, Kushler said, and it may even be possible to forego replacing the coal plants we already have.

Dark city
Take a night or weekend drive in downtown Lansing and you’ll see very few lit windows.

For the past several years, Michigan’s Office of Management and Budget has spearheaded a huge energy conservation and efficiency drive cutting across 19 agencies and 2,000 facilities in the state.

OMB spokesman Keith Paasch estimated that the state cut 17.69 percent of its energy use from 2002 to 2007. Because of zooming energy costs, it still wasn’t a money-saver — during that time, the energy bill for state facilities went up from $70 million to $95 million. Without the nearly 18 percent reduction, however, Paasch estimates the 2007 bill would have been $21 million higher.

The resulting carbon footprint reduction was like taking 17,500 cars off the road — or, if you’re more apocalyptic-minded, wiping out 8,700 homes, equal to the entire city of Mount Pleasant.

By moving cleaning crews from third to first shift, the state sent a clear message that it meant business.

“It changes the culture just to have cleaning people come in and vacuum the floor while you’re on the phone,” Paasch said.

According to Paasch, turning the lights off nights and weekends in state buildings downtown slashed utility costs by 16 percent.

New hardware is in the mix, too. State-of-the-art lighting retrofits, motion sensors and daylight dimmers are going in everywhere.

In the Michigan Senate Office Building, carbon dioxide sensors detect human presence (we breathe out CO2) and adjust the heat level accordingly. Midwest Illumination, a nationwide company with offices in Clarkston, did the work at the Senate building.

“Some of these technologies are in their third and fourth generation, so we’re using the latest and greatest,” Midwest CEO Terry Summerlee said. Special reflectors cuddle every ray of light and steer it down to the task. Variable speed blowers keep the place cool, even when senators are bloviating full blast.

“When they’re in there, who knows?” Summerlee laughed. “Those fans are running 110 percent.”

Doug Church, maintenance supervisor for the state’s infrastructure services, has high hopes for a new chiller unit on top of the Romney Building in downtown Lansing.

The chiller, a small addition to the city’s skyline this year, uses the cool air at the top off the 13-story building to chill the building’s water. For several months a year, it is expected to completely replace a conventional, energy-hogging chiller unit.

The technology is cool, all right, but Paasch was keen to point out that people always drive conservation.

“The most effective programs we have had are education and awareness,” Paasch said. “We achieve our most significant savings from getting people to turn things off when they’re not in use. You don’t get any greater savings.”

To that end, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has ordered city employees to power down computer and shut off lights and equipment at the end of the day. As in state buildings, all cleaning is done during business hours.

At the beginning of 2008, Lansing conducted an energy assessment of City Hall and police headquarters. The result is a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent “within the next year.”

Taylor Heins of Lansing’s “Go Lansing! Go Green!” initiative said ventilation and lighting upgrades are provided for in the city’s budget this year. Heins said the upgrades would only take another year — until the end of 2010 — to pay for themselves.

The city has also set the goal of reducing electricity usage in all municipal facilities by 10 percent.

Over at MSU, sustainability expert Terry Link wants to see a lot less energy go out the classroom window.

“My gut feeling is there’s at least 10 percent waste we can pull out of the system,” Link said.

In fall 2008, for the first time at MSU, schedulers moved classes around to avoid heating a whole building just to host one or two classes. Fans and motors (“the big juice suckers,” Link said) in campus buildings are being retrofitted as the budget allows.

Link is even weaving a cross-departmental web of sustainability spies, although he prefers a more benign term. “We have stewards in most buildings — a network of getting information out and explaining how to make more effective choices in the workplace,” he said.

Link imagines a campus where everyone shuts down or unplugs electronic devices, which draw power even when in “sleep” or “energy save” mode. “People don’t understand the sheer size of our institution,” he said. “There’s something like 90,000 devices plugged into our network. If each of them is drawing two watts, that’s 180,000 watts an hour, day after day. At the end of the year, you have enough to run a number of households, easy.”

White House, your house
Gene Townsend makes local headlines with pioneering green developments like Printers Row condos or the Kalamazoo Gateway project, but he doesn’t claim to be a rocket scientist. He’s a believer in the world-saving power of insulation, energy-saving furnaces and water heaters and other humble tools of his trade.

Townsend brushes off the idea that green building is costly.

“That’s a common fallacy,” he said. “The difference is modest in cost. It’s the way the work is managed.”

Now the state is catching up to him, with a building code that brings Michigan up to speed with 35 other states.

Until last month, Townsend said, Michigan’s energy code for builders was the second most lax in the country, next to Mississippi.

“Performance in our new construction houses is going to substantially increase this year,” Mann, the irate energy rater, said. “Most new construction homes will be built almost to an Energy Star standard.”

There’s not much new building going on now, but Mann and Townsend agreed that a slump might be a good time to change the game for builders.

“It’s going to give some people time to ramp up,” Townsend said.

In the meantime, the war of independence will be shouldered by individual homeowners, all the way up to Barack Obama, who promised to do an energy audit on the White House next year. (There must be a secret passage or two there.)

“Part of what I want to do is show the American people it’s not that hard,” Obama told Barbara Walters last week.

To grease the national caulk gun, Congress hung a little-known ornament on the October 2008 Wall Street bailout plan: residential tax credits of up to $500 for energy-efficient improvements.

Mann understands that everyone can’t sink thousands of dollars into an energy audit and overhaul, even if federal and state incentives and the BWL’s new efficiency program kick in some help.

But almost anybody can seal up windows, switch out incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents or change a furnace filter.

“You have to pick the most realistic part and start there and work at it,” Mann said. “Year after year, if you can afford to do some kind of improvement, it’ll get better.”