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High-performance buildings are a big opportunity for Minnesota

Courtesy of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity
A "net zero" house Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity built in north Minneapolis.

Take a step into a super-efficient home and you will notice the difference: no draft, no noise from the outside. And the energy bills? A fraction of less efficient homes. If the home generates its own solar energy, it can be “net zero” with no utility bill at all.

Michael Noble

For low-income families, energy efficiency can determine their ability to afford their mortgages and stay in their homes long-term. With the residential sector accounting for more than 22 percent of Minnesota’s energy use, home efficiency also creates big opportunities for our whole state to save.

Minnesota has the innovation and know-how to create high-performance buildings. Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based energy policy organization, set out to bring experts, decision-makers, and concerned citizens together for a public event on how we can do even more. The event, titled “Built for the Future,” took place in late January, but the conversation is a long-term endeavor.

Energy efficient and affordable

Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity is a central player in the conversation on building affordable, energy-efficient homes. As the largest private homebuilder in the U.S. — building about 3,200 homes a year — Habitat for Humanity is already proving that new homes can meet (or surpass) local energy codes and still be affordable for low-income families to buy. Twin Cities Habitat is continually working on ways to do this even better. Currently it’s testing two new wall designs created in partnership with researchers at the University of Minnesota.

The Rocky Mountain Institute also put its brainpower to the issue, with expert Jacob Corvidae sharing knowledge of super-efficient models from around the world and reminding us all that both new and existing homes can have tighter envelopes and smart heating and cooling that benefit our whole electric system.

Susan Haigh

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman opened the “Built for the Future” event, highlighting the important role of city and state government in helping Minnesota lead the way in more efficient and better quality construction in the years ahead.

As an organization focused on policy, Fresh Energy works toward improving the efficiency of buildings across the state. For example, Fresh Energy helped ensure that blower door tests were added as a requirement to Minnesota’s energy building code in 2015. Blower door tests confirm that walls and ceilings are airtight in newly built homes. Fresh Energy pointed to the fact that Twin Cities Habitat was already using blower doors as evidence that other builders could meet that standard too.

“More and more there is visible value in energy-efficient homes,” Rocky Mountain Institute’s Corvidae told the audience. “Minnesota is doing tremendous leadership on this. You’re just doing it very quietly and very humbly.”

Where to next?

Fresh Energy, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017, and Twin Cities Habitat share pride in what Minnesota has accomplished so far. But with innovation moving fast, a changing climate making energy decisions more important than ever, and a strong market demand for efficient homes across income levels, we know we can do more.

The homes Minnesota is building now will be around for 100 years or more, and their quality and affordability may well determine how well our region thrives in the future. More homes can be built at Twin Cities Habitat-levels of efficiency, we can do more to use data as a tool for inspiring and tracking progress on efficiency, local governments can lead the way by requiring high efficiency in projects funded with public support, and the innovative business and civic leaders in our state can help Minnesota become known across the country for its super-efficient, comfortable housing choices.

Michael Noble is the executive director of Fresh Energy. Sue Haigh is the president and CEO at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 03/13/2017 - 12:38 pm.

    Increased savings from increased cost?

    Percentage-wise, how much more expensive was it to build the home pictured in the article than it would have been to build an equivalent home that did not qualify as “high performance”?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/13/2017 - 03:32 pm.

      Good, key question

      I agree with the concept 100% but would recommend future articles on this topic break down some of the cost, or “return on investment,” aspects as well as possible grants, “creative financing” possibilities, how long it takes for more efficient systems to pay for themselves, the incresed market value of the house, etc. (to make it easier for people to think practically and “consider the possibilities”).

      In the “creative financing” department, I heard something a few years ago (on MPR, I think) that sounded like a great idea having to do with arrangements being made that involved home owners, their electricity provider and one or more banks.

      Essentially, loans were made to the homeowners to cover the cost of the alternative energy system they wanted to install and the loan was to be repaid (by the electricity provider) out of the monthly savings the new system would generate.

      The homeowner paid their monthly electric bill at the same (averaged) rate they were paying before the new system was installed until the loan was repaid, at which time the homeowner would start reaping the savings.

      I have no idea what became of that approach, but if it worked out and worked well for all concerned, it would be a great way to make it much easier for more people to convert to, or build-in, alternative energy systems.

      In the practical experience category, in the past I worked with a community organization that used state grant money (from the Department of Energy, I believe) to weatherize low-income people’s homes. We insulated their attics and walls, caulked their windows and installed new storm doors (where needed). The anecdotal talk from the organization’s management people was that doing that lowered people’s heating bills by about 40%.

      Very “low-tech,” simple and accessible to anyone with a few hundred extra dollars to invest, but I remember thinking regularly (and still do) that it was a GREAT investment of taxpayer dollars.

      Here’s a link that provides info on Minnesota’s “Weatherization Assistance Program” (for those short of a few hundred extra dollars to invest to start saving on those energy bills while reducing the “load” on the system and making it possible to burn a little bit less coal, natural gas or whatever it is that’s burning in our state’s nuclear power plants)

      https://mn.gov/commerce/consumers/consumer-assistance/weatherization/

      “The Weatherization Assistance Program provides free home energy upgrades to income-eligible homeowners and renters to help save energy and make sure your home is a healthy and safe place to live.”

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