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News Tribune: Duluth advances in energy-saving competition

Duluth advances in energy-saving competition

An energy-saving competition with a $5 million prize at stake entered its next phase on Wednesday — with Duluth one of 50 small- to medium-sized cities nationwide to be named a semifinalist.
The Georgetown University Energy Prize will go to the community that most successfully cuts its use of natural gas and electricity during the next two years. Duluth applied to take part, and simply being selected as a semifinalist for the prize is an honor, 1st District Duluth City Councilor Jennifer Julsrud said.

“The wonderful news is that entrance into this competition is an acknowledgement that Duluth is already a leader in community energy-efficiency programs,” she said.

But Julsrud called on residents to join in the effort.

“In order to be successful, we need to get off to a fast start. We’re asking you, every one of you, to get involved,” she said.

Duluth will need to harness residents’ competitive as well as collaborative spirit, said Jodi Slick, CEO of the Duluth Energy Efficiency Program (commonly known by its acronym, DEEP).

She noted that Duluth will compete with many warm-climate cities that see their energy demand peak in the summer.

“They have a little time to get prepared to really start saving energy,” Slick said.

“In Duluth, however, we have to kick things off quickly, because this is the season in which we use most of our energy. And that’s why today as part of the Georgetown University Energy Prize launch, we’re challenging all citizens to get involved in Duluth’s ‘dash to the cash,’ ” Slick said.

Despite the length of the competition, Slick warned of the dangers of complacency.

“We’re used to marathons in Duluth, and when we have to work for two years to reduce energy, it’s going to be a  marathon. But the best way to run this race is from the lead,” she said.

Slick laid out a campaign that will ask Duluth residents to take at least five actions in the next the next 50 days that trim their overall energy use by 5 percent or more. For conservation measures and tips, residents can visit

Duluth Mayor Don Ness praised the team that is leading the campaign.

“We are poised to be very competitive, and I think that we are poised to win this contest and bring additional resources back to our community that will help us,” he said.

Ness contends that the whole city stands to benefit from the effort.

“When we invest in our energy efficiency, we are investing in our competitiveness and our ability to stay competitive into the future for many years to come,” he said.

Win or lose, residents can achieve tangible savings, as Tina Koecher, manager of energy efficiency at Minnesota Power, pointed out

“Regardless of where we end in this prize competition, there’s no losing proposition. We’ll be saving energy along the way. We’ll be making effective choices about how we’re using energy, and we’ll be understanding more about energy,” she said.

The competition is designed to demonstrate energy-saving strategies that can be replicated across the nation, and Julsrud said the potential stakes are high.

“While as a nation we’re experts in mining coal, America does a poor job of mining for efficiencies. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than half of the total energy produced in this country is wasted due to inefficiencies,” she said.

Your Story Here

Do you have a great story to share about energy efficiency? Have you been putting solar panels on your house or caulking your windows? What are you doing to keep your electric bills down? We want to celebrate your achievements here.

The First Bite of Elephant

In conservation terms, Dave has seen a lot. His passion for environmental activism began in the heady days of the Sixties and continued through the passage of the Clean Water Act. As president of the Izaak Walton League, he helped ensure legislative protection for the Boundary Waters and promoted the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs and “bridge fuels” such as natural gas that could serve as an intermediate step between old-school fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. He knew how important taking environmental action was to fight climate change and protect Minnesota wildlife both for their ecosystems and for the hunters and fishers who value them.

What he didn’t know was how his home fit into the picture.

“To my surprise,” he says ruefully, looking at the results of the home energy audit he and his wife Margo had conducted through Ecolibrium3’s interfaith pilot program, “this house was porous!” There was so much energy escaping from inside to outside that they were appalled. “It’s like how the shoemaker goes barefoot because he’s so busy making shoes for everyone else,” Dave says.

Well, if the shoe fits…Dave and Margo switched out their fuel oil furnace for natural gas in the summer of 2014. They then turned their attention to some of the other energy-saving measures recommended for their home. “I got into the attic crawl space for the first time in about a century,” he remembers. “It looks like the builder kind of stopped just short of actually insulating it.”

After installing insulation in their crawl space, they noticed that improper bathroom venting was whisking moisture into their attic and damaging insulation there. They considered new windows, but realized covering them would be less attractive but much more cost-effective. They insulated basement space and caulked doors.

One improvement led to another—something that makes a lot of homeowners nervous. Dave acknowledges that there’s definitely an up-front cost to making these changes, but they estimate that the improvements they made to their home will pay for themselves in a few years because of the money they will save keeping their house heated.

He encourages other homeowners to start making a difference even in small ways. “It’s like eating an elephant,” he says. “It’s so big you don’t know where to begin—but if you don’t start at all, the elephant just keeps growing.” Climate change is costly over the long term, he points out, so taking action now saves money in the end.

That’s the challenge: to stop thinking of energy conservation as daunting and start thinking of it as a fascinating challenge. “You just do the best you can,” says Dave. “When you quit putting it off, it gets fun. Being able to take control and see tangible benefits—that feels great. It just makes you think, ‘Yeah, I’m doing my share.’”

Faith and Energy

When parishioners at Pilgrim Congregational Church stand gazing at the light from above, they’re not necessarily communing with the divine. They’re wondering how energy-efficient the lightbulbs are.

Actually, perhaps they’re doing both.

Pilgrim is one of three faith communities that helped pilot a new congregational initiative with Ecolibrium3. Their involvement began when one church member, Bret, scheduled an energy audit for his house through Ecolibrium3’s Duluth Energy Efficiency Program (DEEP). He wanted to make sure it was as green, comfortable, and cost-effective as possible. The improvements he and his family were making to their home prompted them to look around at the church building. He asked if there was a version of DEEP available for organizations, not just households. It was meant to be: the pilot program was in its early stages, and Pilgrim got on board.

By scheduling energy audits for their own houses, members at Pilgrim Church could work with Ecolibrium3, Minnesota Power, and Comfort Systems to get an audit done for their congregational building. The more parishioners had their houses inspected—and the more improvements they all made—the more excitement mounted.

At a certain point, the system created its own momentum—“raising awareness of how the church building uses energy,” as Bret says. This awareness alone was enough to make changes in the way things work at Pilgrim; the congregation saved around 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2012, in large part because parishioners were making simple behavioral changes. They were so enthusiastic about turning off lights, for instance, that Bret came in more than once to find groups sitting in dim light “to save energy.” They were astonished and delighted to find out that they could turn on the new LED lights and still use less energy than they did with the old incandescents.

The congregation had some repairs to do, and thanks to the audit, they became aware of energy-efficient options that were good for the earth and for the budget. For one thing, the church’s magnificent organ got a new humidifier. Organs require very particular moisture levels to function, and Pilgrim’s water bills had been enormous. The new humidifier system is able to focus on only the area needed to keep the organ happy without having to cover the entire building…and the water bills are down by a whopping $1,000 a year.

That was a job for the professionals. Pilgrim also had a band of enthusiastic volunteers from the congregation who switched out 320 lights around the church for energy-efficient LED bulbs, installed faucet aerators to save water in kitchens and bathrooms, and even held weatherization parties to make sure windows were caulked and ready for what turned out to be the changing climate’s latest surprise: the brutal winter of 2013-14. “It’s not a one-step deal,” says Bret. “It’s a process.” Pilgrim’s members are still going around the building looking for improvements they can make that will help them become even more energy efficient.

Why are they doing all this? There are two reasons, in the end. While they’d prefer to concentrate on higher things, the church had to deal with their budget. Saving energy turned out to be a great investment—one that the council eventually realized would be even more effective than their endowment fund. It wasn’t merely about the bottom line, though;  Pilgrim’s members saw participating in DEEP as a way to put their faith into action. “We believe that we are stewards of the earth,” Bret says simply.

As the people of Pilgrim Church have found out, water and light are more than powerful symbols of their faith: they are precious resources. Being good stewards and using them efficiently means building a better future for their congregation and the planet. “We hope we can give back as well,” says Bret. “We feel really blessed to have been part of this project.”

Here Comes the Sun

Matt spent a long and productive career advising people on insurance and financial investments, so when he was looking at bringing his lifelong interest in sustainability home, he knew a sure thing when he saw it. The Made in Minnesota (MiM) Solar Incentive Program meant that getting photovoltaic solar panels installed on his house was “a no-brainer.” he says.  “It pays for itself in 7 or 8 years, and you’re seeing a return on investment right away.”

The work of making Matt’s house more efficient and environmentally friendly began 25 years ago, when he moved in. The house came with an old oil furnace, which he switched for a high-efficiency natural gas model. He installed insulation all over the house—once, when the siding was damaged by hail, he took the opportunity to add more insulation to the walls before he had the new siding put in. More recently, he had an energy audit conducted and began switching out his old incandescent lights for energy-saving models. “The incentives all help,” he says, and adds that he was able to cut his gas bills in half just by completing these energy-efficiency measures.

It wasn’t enough, though. He yearned to be able to create his own energy. “The more you produce of what you use, the less you have to buy somewhere else,” he says. It’s like gardening—why buy tomatoes at a supermarket that have been flown in from South America when you can grow your own right at home? Since Minnesota’s energy sources—coal, gas, oil—overwhelmingly come from out of state, solar is becoming a way to encourage local businesses. Not only that, but it has positive effects on the health of Duluth’s residents. Reducing air pollution decreases the incidence of respiratory ailments such as asthma. “Duluth is a lot cleaner now than it was 40 years ago,” Matt points out with satisfaction. “Let’s continue that trend.”

The up-front cost of solar installation daunts many homeowners, and legislators and utilities are still hammering out the details on how to adapt to new energy generation technology. Early adopters such as Matt, however, are breaking ground for other homeowners, and the process is getting less expensive—there’s been an 80% reduction in the price of solar panels over the last 6 years. “It pays for itself over time,” he says. “If you’re able to make use of tax credits to help get started, it’s a no-brainer. If not, consider if you can partner with someone else.”

Investing in the local economy, the comfort of your home, the planet’s future, and the air quality of Duluth? As Matt found out, that’s going to pay dividends.

Rebuilding Energy After Disaster

When the muddy water raced down the hill, tearing up streets and filling basements, spilling brown sludge into Lake Superior’s June waters, Duluth learned for real what climate change means. It means storm events like the flood of 2012 will be more frequent in the future—and more severe. The extent of the damage caught a lot of people off guard. “They said Duluth couldn’t flood,” the handwritten sign in a video game store’s window proclaimed. “Sale on all games about boats.”

When events like this happen, the people who are hardest hit are the ones who were having the hardest time to begin with. Jeanette’s life had changed in the blink of an eye in December of 2008 due to a devastating motorcycle accident. Recovery was slow and painful, finances were already difficult…and then the flood hit.  “I had this feeling of no longer having a cushion in the world,” she said.

Jeanette had already lost enough. Now the flood damage was threatening what she had left. Neither she nor her social worker, Penny, had any idea initially how to deal with the damage or whether there might be any funds available in this situation. Eventually, though, they connected with Ecolibrium3’s flood recovery program. Jeanette found funding and contractors to replace her broken mechanicals with new, energy-efficient models. The water heater was a particularly miraculous transformation.  “When they replaced it,” she recalls, “they actually cut it open. They said they’d never seen a water heater like it—it was literally half full of sediment.”

Anything would have been an improvement over the ruined water heater, but the goal of the flood recovery program was to replace these devices with better ones than homeowners had had to start with—ones that would save energy, making them less expensive to run and reducing their environmental impact. That means that homeowners such as Jeanette could save money on their heat and electricity bills all while helping turn the tide of the climate change that was such a huge factor in the flood to begin with.

When times get tough, people like Jeanette get tougher. That’s Duluth energy for you.




Fuel Oil Conversion

Nobody’s as enthusiastic as a convert. Lorn was in the office at Ecolibrium3 to go over the results of his energy audit, which included the conversion of his old fuel-oil boiler—typical of Duluth’s older houses, such as his 1906 model—to natural gas, which has the benefit of being more efficient, and therefore less expensive. That last bit is crucial in a brutal Duluth winter, which can try even the most frugal homeowner’s soul.

“I’ve been wearing two pairs of socks at home, with slippers over them,” he says. What’s more, he’d been purchasing fuel oil by the can. With the help of the statewide fuel assistance program, he’d had his oil tank filled at the beginning of the winter. That only lasts so long, however. A hard-working homeowner trying to make each paycheck go as far as possible can’t always scrape up the minimum payment for a full refill. Buying a little oil at a time was the only option.

“Canning it,” as Lorn puts it, is an inconvenient, expensive way to heat a house. During the cold, lingering winter of 2012-2013, Lorn noticed that what would ordinarily be two weeks’ worth of oil was barely lasting two days. By May, when the snow had still not melted and spring was still dragging its feet, he said enough. He estimates that he’d already spent $1700 on heating that winter, and he wasn’t going to buy more oil. He and his family put on heavier sweaters and toughed out the last of the cold snap.

Lorn had determined that one way or another, he was going to replace his aging boiler. Ecolibrium3 conducted an energy audit on Lorn’s house and got him the funding for a replacement—a new, efficient combination boiler and water heater, EnergyStar rated so it will be a good investment. The audit also has recommendations for other improvements Lorn can make to his house. Take air sealing, for instance. People know about the benefits of insulation, but they’re less familiar with this concept—finding the spots where cold air seeps in from outside and sealing them off so there is less heat loss, meaning less energy is needed to keep the house warm. “Insulation is like wearing a wool sweater,” says Kristen, the Ecolibrium3 staff member working with Lorn. “It’ll keep you warm, but if you don’t put a windbreaker on, the wind will still whip right through you. Air sealing is like that windbreaker for your house.”

Lorn nods. A lot of this work he can do by himself, which is important both for saving money and for the way he sees himself as a homeowner. He values being able to take care of the house himself, and gutted his bathroom last winter to do a complete overhaul. When he bought his house a few years ago, he didn’t know much about homeownership. He’d been considering it for a while, but then a fire in his rental over the Christmas holidays forced his hand. He had to move somewhere, which accelerated the home-buying process.  He has learned a lot since then. “I wouldn’t buy a house on fuel oil now, that’s for sure!” he says ruefully.

Lorn has a plan now for how to improve his house’s energy efficiency even more, and he wants other homeowners to know the benefits of making greener improvements to their homes. “We’ve got this technology now, and these things have to happen,” he says. “There’s so much waste. We can do better.”

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