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RePower Bainbridge sets ambitious goal

Lead home energy advisor Rick Blumenthal points out energy concerns during an energy assessment. - Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo
Lead home energy advisor Rick Blumenthal points out energy concerns during an energy assessment.
— image credit: Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo

Bainbridge residents have an opportunity to prove that a lofty goal like lowering community energy usage is possible. And they get three years to prove it.

As the RePower Bainbridge initiative balloons from its pilot stage to full throttle on March 20, the community will be thrown a number of opportunities to monitor and adjust its energy consumption through the program.

“We feel really confident that if any community can do it then Bainbridge can,” said Councilor Hilary Franz, who has played a critical role in creating and funding of the program.

“Bainbridge is community oriented, highly informed and engaged with one another,” she said. “And I think that will give us the boost we need to demonstrate how a community can thrive when given a challenge this bold.”

The RePower Bainbridge program is dedicated to helping islanders save energy, reduce costs and make island homes and businesses more sustainable. Funded through grants, including an Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant worth nearly $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, the three-year challenge will end in July 2013 and will give residents and business owners a range of ways to lower their carbon footprint.

The grant was distributed to just 20 communities in the country, and Bainbridge was given the third highest in funding. Islanders consume 60 percent more electricity than the average Puget Sound Energy (PSE) customer. Nearly half the island homes were built before 1980 and many are not up to current energy code standards. Fewer than 20 percent of those homes are properly insulated.

One of the key goals in the program, which Franz jokingly referred to as BHAG, or the “big, hairy, audacious goal,” is to perform free home energy check ups in 4,000 or roughly half of the island homes. The program will also try to perform energy check ups on 100 business and perform energy efficiency upgrades in 2,000 homes and 25 businesses.

In the two-month pilot program, about 140 homes have already had free energy assessment completed, and of those between 25-30 have implemented upgrades.

Rick Blumenthal is the lead home energy advisor in the program and works for the Conservation Services Group, which was hired to administer the program in coordination with the city and community organizations and volunteers. Blumenthal has been an island home builder since 1980. Green, efficient building practices are a passion for Blumenthal, and the energy assessments will be his focus for the next three years.

Homeowner Daniel DeBellis signed up for the home assessment after coming across the free opportunity in a mailer. Debellis has lived in his Baker Hill area home for about a year after buying it from a builder as a spec home.

He was curious if anything could be done to lower the energy bill in his large, high-celling home, which generates an energy bill in excess of $400 during the winter.

Blumenthal went from hot water inspection to the crawl space, around the appliances, to the hot water heater and a quick walk-through around the house. A significant problem area was found in the crawl space, where the air was escaping through the insulation, and drafting cold air up through the house.

In addition he counted 99 can-lights dotting the vaulted ceilings that were creating air pockets where the heat could escape. Though the tall glass windows provided a beautiful view of the landscape, they also enabled cold air to permeate the house.

“It’s a new house, it’s big, and unsurprisingly there are areas where it’s clear that the builders didn’t finish the job to make this house as efficient as possible,” said Blumenthal. “It’s not because builders are lazy or stupid. They just aren’t focused on energy efficiency. As part of this program we want to educate designer to architect to builder and homeowner.”

The house was finished in 2008 and was left vacant for more than a year. DeBellis wasn’t surprised by some of the problem areas, but noted a number of free or low-cost solutions he could implement himself to improve the house.

“We as a family are trying to identify ways to decrease our footprint,” he said. “Not because we see this as an emotional avenue to save the earth, but because this is practical. This is something I can invest in for my family.”

Through the assessment, DeBellis said he might look into renewable energy sources, including solar, and try to control the air leakage in critical areas of his house.

RePower offers homeowners financing options through a partnership with Kitsap County Credit Union, and access to a list of skilled and trained contractors. An objective of the program is to stimulate the depressed construction market by creating a local, trained energy-efficient workforce. As part of every check-up energy advisors provide homeowners with up to 25 energy saving compact flourescent light bulbs, provided by PSE, and two high performance showerheads that save water and reduce heating costs without reducing water pressure.

Homeowners Lara Hansen and Eric Mielbrecht jumped at the opportunity to pursue a free assessment. They work from their home of High School Road, and also happen to be some of the lead experts in climate change around the world. Hansen wrote one of the first texts on climate change and continues to wield an important influence through the company she and her husband founded called EcoAdapt.

“It’s reassuring to know we are hard at work on climate change, and in the back of your head be worried about whether our home is contributing to the problem,” said Hansen.

The couple is interested in taking advantage of the program with upgrades to their boiler and insulation of their home.

Chris McMasters found out through his energy assessment that his home has a small gap in the slab foundation that allows the home’s center interior wall to fill up with cold air, which can make it about 10 degrees cooler than the outside walls. His family pursued the option of a second-tier, extensive home energy assessment, in which an infrared camera and a blower-door test was done to pull up thermal images depicting areas where heat was escaping.

Through the test, the McMasters were able to identify the problem, which can be remedied with insulation. In addition they replaced their thermostat with a programmable one and changed the bathroom fans with quieter, more efficient models.

“Consequently, we are warmer when we wake up and aren’t stressing the island’s electric grid,” said McMasters.

They are also in the process of collecting estimates for added ceiling insulation and a 300 percent efficient ductless heat pump to be finished by the fall.

“Making these investments is a challenge,” said McMasters. “However, we couldn’t be more excited to participate in a community-wide effort to attack environmental and economic problems at the same time. All while making our home more comfortable and saving money over the long term. It’s just awesome.”

McMasters is a part of a group of community members who formed in 2009 to work as a task force to reduce island consumption. The task force has since changed their name to Positive Energy and partnered with the local nonprofit organization, Sustainable Bainbridge.

Positive Energy is a key partner in helping implement the program and creating the first real-time community-wide energy dashboard with data supplied by PSE at several island locations, including Bay Hay and Feed, Bainbridge Bakers and the Chamber of Commerce. The dashboard is fed live energy usage data from the island 24 hours a day.

Not everyone in the community is pleased about the energy information overload. Homeowner Mary Dombrowski said she was shocked by the public intrusion into the private sphere.

When she received her home energy report, which was provided by PSE in coordination with the city, she thought it was a waste of taxpayer money. The reports are funded through an efficiency block grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce, and are distributed to eight other cities in the state.

The reports will be sent every other month for a year, which compare homeowners’ individual energy use with their neighbors. The usage is scored, which can be improved and monitored over time.

“These are just simple things I can’t believe we are wasting government money telling adults,” said Dombrowski. “The city thinks they are going to be parents to people. That is not an appropriate function of government when it is nearly bankrupt.”

Franz said the reports are another way for homeowners to learn how to save money and lower energy usage, but there is an opt out option through calling PSE.

Hansen said she was happy to get the home energy report because even with a hot tub in the backyard, which is a costly energy suck, she was still using less energy than the neighbors.

“That's something to be proud of, even with the indulgence of a hot tub, our consumption is top notch,” Hansen said. “But, there is always room for improvement.”

- The RePower Bainbridge official launch party is scheduled for Sunday March 20 1:00 - 4:00 p.m. at Winslow Way and Winslow Green.

- A community meeting will be held from 6:30- 8:30 on March 22 at the Bainbridge Island Senior Center for more RePower Bainbridge information.

- To schedule an energy check up call 1-877-741-4330 or visit repowerbainbridge.org

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