Buildings are one of this country's biggest energy users, accounting for roughly one-third of energy consumption nationwide. And for several decades at least, climate activists, utility companies, environmentally-minded architects and construction firms, and government bodies have pushed for more energy-efficient structures.
The situation is no different in the City of Rochester. That's why the city is partnering with the Rochester People's Climate Coalition and PathStone, a nonprofit housing and human services organization, to launch Sustainable Homes Rochester, a campaign aimed at dramatically improving the energy efficiency of city houses.
Energy efficiency improvements can help residents lower their utility bills, and they can make their homes more comfortable. Insulating a house, replacing drafty old windows with efficient ones, and installing high-efficiency heating and cooling systems all make a big difference. But the partners in Sustainable Homes Rochester also see residential energy efficiency as a crucial strategy in a broader effort to cut citywide greenhouse gas emissions. The city's 2017 Climate Action Plan calls for reducing Rochester's carbon emissions to 40 percent of 2010 levels, and to do that by 2030.
"The way I like to think about it is, the cars that we drive around are getting more efficient, and our houses need to get more efficient," says Scott Oliver, PathStone's deputy for energy programs.
Through Sustainable Homes Rochester, residents sign up for free home energy audits, which help them determine how they can make their houses more efficient.
The campaign will encourage homeowners to make sure their houses are well-insulated and sealed. But it'll also promote the "beneficial electrification" of home heating and cooling systems with electric-powered heat pumps, says Abigail McHugh-Grifa, interim executive director of RPCC and the outreach coordinator for the campaign.
Heat pumps are an extremely efficient way of heating and cooling houses; they're also used for hot water heaters. Some pumps use air for heating and cooling, while others are part of geothermal systems.
The heat pumps are all powered by electricity, which is why McHugh-Grifa uses the term "beneficial electrification." Much of Rochester's electricity is generated by no- or low-carbon sources, such as hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, as well as an increasing supply of wind and solar power. That makes the heat pumps a more climate-friendly option than furnaces powered by natural gas or other fossil fuels, says Anne Spaulding, the city's energy and sustainability manager.
PathStone, which administers several other assistance programs for residential energy efficiency improvements, has agreements with a group of contractors to perform the home energy audits and provide homeowners with estimates for any improvements. Homeowners can also hire the contractors to do the work if they prefer.
"The idea is to make it easy for people," says McHugh-Grifa.
PathStone's Oliver says the organization can also help guide homeowners to low-interest loans, grants, and tax credits to help pay for improvements. His role, he says, is to serve as "an energy coach."
"We realize with this campaign that not everybody's going to be ready to do all of this at once, but we want people to think about that as, like, maybe you're not ready today, but when you are ready to change your furnace, that's going to be the time," Oliver says. "We want to get that in the back of someone's mind."
Sustainable Homes Rochester will officially kick off at 6 p.m. January 14 with an event in the atrium of City Hall, 30 Church Street. Other events, where people can get information or sign up for audits, will take place through the end of February; the schedule of events is available at the campaign's website, www.cityofrochester.gov/shr. The city has received a $150,000 grant from NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, for the campaign.