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National Grid's Deep Energy Retrofit Program gets local attention

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  September 29, 2011 05:00 PM

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A view of the Hall house after the upgrades (above) and before (left).

Thomas Hall’s olive green Quincy house looks like any other on the block: double story, clean aesthetics, small trees dotting the property.

Yet beneath the surface of the wooden paneling, between the layers of glass in all the white-trimmed windows, even on the brown-slated roof, hides a subtle secret – energy efficiency.

In the last year, Hall and his family became one of 27 units to participate in National Grid’s Deep Energy Retrofit (DER) pilot program, designed to wrap the house in four inches of different insulations in order to lock in the climate-controlled conditions, increasing the building’s energy efficiency overall.

It wasn’t a route the Halls initially planned to go.

At first, their dream was just for an addition to make room for their growing family. Yet after deciding that they wanted to transform their one-story bungalow into a two-story home, architect Henry MacLean, the principal for Timeless Architecture who worked on the house, had an idea.

The siding would need to be replaced, the roof would need to be redone, and all the home’s windows would need to be changed. By going through National Grid’s DER program, and adhering to the stricter energy use guidelines that came with the program, the family could go green with their new addition while also obtaining up to $42,000 back from National Grid.

It’s the perfect match for a family looking to do a major renovation of their home anyway, MacLean said, and the result has been fantastic.

“In cars we know what our miles per gallon is. For homes it's BTU for square foot. The average existing home in Boston uses about 70,000-75,000 BTUs per square foot every year. And we got this house down to 10,000 BTU per square yard -- 15 percent of the energy a typical house uses,” MacLean said. “It gives you an idea what that does for cost for the homeowner as well as reducing carbon in the atmosphere.”

And although the house has doubled in size, the Hall’s energy costs are exceedingly low. A house this size typically would use 73,000 killowatt hours for power, heating, and cooling. The Halls' house is using 11,000.

It means things like a $35 gas bill for the winter, and a home that is always the right temperature, humidity, and feel for a portion of the cost to make it that way.

However it’s not just the result of the DER insulation, but the mechanical system the DER also requires – one extremely energy efficient, which provides things like air-to-air heat exchange (as new air is brought into the house, it is reheated by the old air).

The DER program, which is comprehensive, lengthy, and involved in and of itself, also requires energy-efficient appliances, energy-efficient lights, even low-flow shower heads, bathroom, and kitchen fixtures.

Even in design, the home maintains energy efficiency - skylights in the roof work to light rooms throughout the day, and work with passive cooling during the summer and swing months.

“It kind of runs the gammit. There are flexibilities and tradeoffs,” MacLean said.

The Halls are also participating in the Thousand Homes Challenge (THC), a National Grid subprogram to the DER pilot that imposes even more stringent energy requirements on a home.

If successful in reducing their energy consumption by 85 percent from the average home their size in one year, homeowners can receive $10,000.

To meet those energy requirements, the Halls leased their roof to a company that installs solar panels.

The solar panels provide for 80 percent of the energy the house uses during the day. It isn’t till the sun goes down that the family needs to purchase back some power, yet at more than half the rate a typical homeowner would pay.

Although there are a variety of benefits, and although the house has already begun to pay for itself, the upgrades aren’t for the financial faint of heart.

“It was a frightfully expensive thing to do at this point in our life. I’m glad it’s done,” Hall said. “It doesn’t pay for itself in an immediate way. But it is a moral payback.”

The high cost is something National Grid members are currently working to address, and the pilot program, which goes from January 2010 until December 2012, will help them understand the price tag separate from the renovations that come along with this type of process.

Currently, average price figures were not available.

Additionally, the DER process, which currently is very involved, lengthy, and entails an extensive discovery period about a house and how it takes in and loses energy, would also look very different by the time a program is developed.

Regardless, many see these today’s fixes as tomorrow’s mandates.

“This is the way of the future,” MacLean said. “Our buildings aren’t going anywhere, and they will be renovated over time, and as they do so, they will be renovated to these new standards.”

Whether or not this specific program will be the one to break into other economic layers, National Grid is committed to the idea that something needs to be done.

“It’s the goal of our state to have deep energy retrofits to be something we’re pursuing,” said Marie McMahon Meehan with National Grid. “It’s much more an existing housing block than new housing [in Massachusetts], it’s already so built up, so this is where the potential is for saving energy.”

Coupled with the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) of 2008, which seeks to see an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (from 1990 levels), and numerous other state and federal mandates requiring energy usage to reduce, all involved with the project see this program as the new standard.

Even the Halls, who admit they had no intention of becoming the green energy poster children they now are, have jumped wholeheartedly on board with energy efficiency.

“I can save [the environment],” Hall said. “If we could all do one thing to make the world better locally, if I can talk to one person…say you have your roof off, you might want to put solar panels on, do this power purchase program…I would point them in that direction.”

MacLean has already started working on a house in Milton with the DER pilot, and the Hall’s house will be open for tours, along with all the other homes in the DER pilot, for those interested in the program this Saturday, Oct. 1.

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