In St. Louis, Mo., in 1946, engineers from Bell Labs introduced a crude mobile car phone, with limited coverage. The cost of purchasing that device, and maintaining a network for its limited use, proved impractical, and some skeptics considered it merely a novel experiment that was out of touch and too expensive to implement.
That is, until several decades later, with the advent of radio frequency technology that allowed calls to be made anywhere within proximity of a cell tower. As transportation, technology and global trade blossomed, people began to imagine the potential of a world where talking to your boss or your client was possible anywhere any time thanks to a device that fit in a coat pocket. Today, cellphones are ubiquitous and inexpensive.
A similar revolution is taking place in the field of energy efficiency. In my eight years operating a small home weatherization company in central Maine, I’ve witnessed a transformation among Maine homeowners from an attitude of skepticism and mistrust about energy efficiency and the contractors who deliver services, to one of eagerness to learn about how weatherization can save energy and money. More and more Mainers are becoming believers with rapid advancements in technology and equipment such as heat pumps, solar panels, mobile apps and heat pump water heaters.
Sometimes, energy efficiency can be achieved with baby steps. If you still have incandescent bulbs at home, switching over to LED or CFL bulbs for relatively little money will result in as much as a 75 percent cost savings per bulb. Air sealing gaps and cracks along rim joists, sills, windows and other places in the basement and attic will make a difference, too.
But often, it’s a heavy lift. Adding new insulation throughout your home, replacing an inefficient heating system or installing solar panels is a substantial financial investment that many Mainers can’t afford on their own.
Sometimes, it takes a community effort to spark the flame — and lower the cost. Solarize Freeport is an initiative the town has adopted to encourage its residents to power their homes via solar energy. The cost of installation is offset by a 10 percent volume discount through a joint agreement with partners Insource Renewables and Assured Solar Energy. As Solarize Freeport’s website describes, the effort is “a community based effort to increase access to solar for Freeport property owners through bulk purchasing.” The municipality has signed an agreement in which the more residents who sign up for solar, the deeper the discount.
The Island Institute has used this bulk purchasing mentality brilliantly for years. Since residents of Monhegan, Vinalhaven and Chebeague don’t have weatherization contractors on their islands, services such as air sealing, insulation and heating system installation are cost-prohibitive. The Island Institute has worked to arrange a predetermined period when contractors can stay on an island and residents can make appointments during that time. Through efficiencies of scale, this brings the cost of a contractor’s services way down.
There are plenty of other community-wide energy efficiency model programs in Maine. The town of Unity is a pioneer in the area of community awareness efforts. The town’s Energy Committee, in cooperation with Unity College, launched its Neighbor Warming Neighbor program several years ago, offering residents workshops on air sealing, building homemade storm windows and weatherizing their homes. Homeowners also received a rebate for getting an energy assessment when done in conjunction with professional air sealing. Participating households realized an estimated savings of $900 per year.
Meanwhile, in Waterville, Sustain Mid-Maine is a grassroots coalition whose members are focused on sustainability, food security and energy conservation/alternative energy. The coalition’s objectives, among others, are to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, facilitate community education and recommend alternative energy technologies to local officials. Throughout their history, they have implemented community weatherization programs and subsidized energy assessments for homeowners, and are still going strong.
And the list goes on. Financial incentives from Efficiency Maine, along with education and outreach from such organizations as Clean Air, Cool Planet, the University of Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and E2Tech, among others, have increasingly challenged and helped communities to save energy, avoid fossil fuels and save money.
Even if you don’t live in Freeport or Waterville, there’s plenty you can do. Weatherize your home. Seal the gaps that are letting in cold air and letting warm air escape. Change your energy-hogging appliances and light bulbs. Talk to your municipal leaders and start your own community initiative, whether it be a collective to bring down the cost of solar installation or simply a challenge to your neighbors to save energy.
Let’s follow the examples of Freeport, Unity and Waterville and make energy efficiency as commonplace as cellphones.
Bo Jespersen is president of The Breathable Home, a weatherization and energy efficiency company in Manchester.