Energy efficiency a moving target

By Tom Gocze, BDN Staff
Posted June 12, 2009, at 6:19 p.m.

There is an act in the Legislature to help ensure that Maine’s energy future is not an apocalypse. It has the lofty goal of weatherizing 100 percent of all Maine residences by 2030.

This has got me to thinking: What is weatherization? Who will define what this will be, and how much energy will we save? Is it what we do today, plugging the glaring holes that have been ignored for 50 years and adding some weatherstripping?

Or should it be something else? I am nervous about just bumping an old Maine farmhouse up to 2009 energy standards — R-19 or R-26 walls and R-50 attic. I do not think that is a lofty enough goal. It is a lot better than many of today’s Maine homes, but is that where we should be in 20 years?

We have spent 30 years weatherizing our homes since the first energy crunches — and what have we learned?

To be fair, we have learned a lot, but energy efficiency is a moving target. It is driven by fuel costs, and they are always changing. What building codes say you should do today might not be adequate 20 years from now.

I am nervous that giving tax credits, which might be a noble concept, does not always get the desired effect.

Back in the 1980s there was a big — I mean BIG — program that underwrote solar hot water systems for nursing homes in Maine. The funding was such that the systems were almost free. A couple of big out-of-state players came in with very pricey systems and installed them on many nursing homes in Maine. Twenty years later, how many are still in service? All the ones that are in my stomping grounds are gone. Did we get what taxpayers paid for?

I hope we are in a different time, with clearer expectations of what conservation and alternative energy can do. Maybe this time around it will fare better.

Perhaps you are wondering what I consider weatherization in 2010 that would last 20 years. Well, here it is:

We should be weatherizing homes so they can be livable without power as if we were living during the ice storm of 1998.

And I do not mean with a giant wood stove that uses 12 cords of firewood a winter.

No wood stove (you can have one, but figure you broke both arms and you can’t use it). You can just survive with some solar gain and body heat. Now, maybe life would not be joyous, but you can survive. When you do fire up the wood stove, you can live a full life in your weatherized home with a couple of cords (no, not five or six — two or maybe three).

This is not that hard to do. It is 2009 and we have the technology and are training more energy auditors every day. We can do this with the people who already are siding and renovating houses. They just need to understand what is proper to conserve energy. Consumers need to know what is bogus and what works.

I hasten to add that there are a lot of bogus energy technologies out there. Every time energy costs spike, the loonies come out of the woodwork.

There is no free lunch in keeping our homes warm and comfortable year-round.

There is common sense engineering and physics — something that I get a little scared about when many politicians think they understand it.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at printed on November 24, 2014