When Ted and Astrid Olsson set out to cut their home electricity
bill, they had three strong incentives to buy solar panels: federal,
state, and city subsidies. But they shelved the idea in favor of
insulating the attic of their San Francisco Victorian.
While it's not as sexy as a rooftop rack of silicon, improving a
home's energy efficiency tends to be the more cost-effective way to
trim carbon emissions. So why are politicians showering subsidies on
residential solar instead?
That's the question posed by Matt Golden, president of
Sustainable Spaces, a company specializing in optimizing the energy
performance of homes. He convinced the Olssons to think first about
energy efficiency, but with every new solar subsidy, it gets harder
for him to get homeowners' attention and contracts.
Policymakers say energy efficiency doesn't have out-of-the-box
solutions that are easy to mandate or incentivize. Mr. Golden's
message: Try harder, or forget about meeting greenhouse-gas goals.
"Everybody strategically understands that energy efficiency is
the most cost-effective place for us to spend our capital," says
Golden. "We can't afford just to take all these [super-inefficient]
houses and put really big solar systems on them that require massive
rebates and incentives from the government."
Among the states, California is furthest along in understanding
its emission sources and setting specific cuts. Homes account for
roughly one-third of the electricity and natural-gas consumption in
California - most of it in older homes. By 2020, the state wants to
cut existing home energy consumption by 40 percent.
To get there, California has incentives for both energy
efficiency and rooftop solar. But it's the solar initiative that's
gotten the buzz, helped in part by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
packaging it as the "Million Solar Roofs" plan. The program
discounts piggyback on a federal tax credit of up to 30 percent of a
system's cost. San Francisco residents can get another $3,000 to
$6,000 written off.Stoking demand for solar can be good for energy
efficiency, too, notes Molly Sterkel of the California Solar
Initiative, the state's solar incentive program.
"[I]t's a two-way street. Solar gets some people excited about
energy consumption and drives them to do energy efficiency. And I
think a lot of people get energy efficiency and they still want to
do more, and so they go do solar," says Ms. Sterkel.
Ted and Astrid Olsson talked with half a dozen solar installers
before a colleague advised getting a home energy audit first.
On a recent weekend, Golden and a two-man team walked with the
Olssons around their four-story home. Golden's team are like
plumbers for air. Using smoke candles, they watch how air circulates
through ducts and drains out of vents, and look for bottlenecks and
leaks. Using a fan device known as a blower door, they measure how
airtight the building is.
The average home is leaky - lots of energy goes out of windows,
doors, or walls. …