Sunday, May 06, 2012

Stop throwing money out the windows

Luanne Rife

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

Energy is a terribly expensive thing to waste. Before our power bills began to catch up with rates charged by most other utilities, it was too easy to cut the check and not think about adding insulation or replacing drafty windows, inefficient furnaces and electricity-sucking lights.

At some point, the cost shifts and it becomes too expensive not to do these things.

Mark Dempsey, vice president of external affairs for Appalachian Power, tells the story of a woman he met soon after arriving in Virginia who was worried about her electric bill, which climbed to $600 during winter months. That seemed rather high to Dempsey, too, so he asked a few questions and came to learn her house had an oil furnace that she felt too costly to run. So she plugged in space heaters throughout her poorly insulated home.

That customer did not understand that as an energy-efficient way of staying warm, she might as well have stuffed dollar bills inside her mattress then lit them on fire.

Explaining why it might be a good idea to part with some money in order to reap substantial savings over time can be a challenge. There is no shortage of academics who understand and teach the theory behind energy efficiency, or of architects and engineers prepared to design better systems or of contractors capable of installing them. All of which does little good if it can't be translated to customers.

That's one of the reasons Virginia Tech is hosting a May 17 and 18 conference at the Hotel Roanoke called Harnessing Innovation for Energy Efficiency Construction: Bridging Industry and Education. The conference is the first of its kind in this region that unites science and technology academic theories with industry practices.

Professor Andrew P. McCoy, one of the organizers, said the planning committee heard repeatedly that business owners and their employees need to develop better soft skills so they can work more effectively with clients, translating technical jargon into language they can understand and staying abreast of available programs that could help those clients better afford projects.

The conference has three tracks — industry and education, industry-to-industry, and policy and advocacy — and a broad and interesting lineup of topics for those who study efficiencies, those who put them into practice and those who develop policies to encourage progress. And at $49, the cost is reasonable.

One person who hopes to attend and learn even more ways of reaping energy savings is Kenneth Cronin. He's Roanoke's director of general services and sustainability. That the term "sustainability" is part of Cronin's title says a great deal about the emphasis Roanoke places in managing its buildings with an eye toward efficiency.

Cronin does not care to get into the politics behind the green energy movement. People will believe what they want to believe about climate change and fossil fuels. To him, the case is easily made on dollars and sense.

Between 2006 and 2010, Roanoke saved $90,000 in utility costs on the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building by making changes to lighting and to the heating and air conditioning systems. In 2010, the city spent $74,500 to replace the black, leaky flat roof over the lowest floor of the building with a white, sunlight-reflecting roof that is energy efficient.

Flat roofs are not known for longevity; this one is expected to last 20 years. That lifespan may just triple, though, through Cronin's latest project: the installation of a live roof.

Before the plants were brought in, city workers installed an irrigation system, tested the roof to make sure it didn't leak and installed pans above the 911 center to protect equipment just in case it does — leaks being another problem known to plague these types of roofs. Now, plants will drink in the rain, and a system collecting rainwater from all of the building will flow into tanks that will water the roof plants during dry spells and be used for other watering needs downtown.

"Because it's so high profile, we want something that looks nicer than looking at a roof," Cronin said. They achieved that. Passers-by can be forgiven for mistaking the roof for a garden. It is now both.

A sign will tell people the benefits of a living roof, how it adds protective insulation and a sound barrier, reuses storm water, provides a habitat for butterflies and songbirds and, of importance to those paying the bills, saves money. And it looks good.

The green roof is a visible way to educate people about the value of energy efficiency.

Not everyone can have a living roof, but all of us could do something to shave our utility bills if we just expend the effort to learn how.

Rife is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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