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Sustainable Missoula: Improving household energy efficiency a key climate solution

Abby Huseth and Max Longo admire their handiwork in weatherizing a window, a small but significant climate solution. (Climate Smart Missoula)

Let’s face it: When it comes to climate solutions, energy efficiency struggles with an image problem. Changing light bulbs and weather-stripping windows seem pretty humble compared to shiny solar panels. But the energy savings piece is a much more critical piece of the climate puzzle than initially meets the eye.

There’s compelling evidence for this: Many cities are using energy efficiency as a key strategy in their blueprints for reaching 100 percent clean energy, recognizing that using less energy lowers the cost of shifting to renewables.

Locally, in 2017 our first community-wide greenhouse gas emissions inventory revealed that over half of Missoula’s carbon footprint comes from the energy we use in our homes (24 percent) and commercial buildings (28 percent) combined.

Clearly, our built environment holds huge potential to be more climate-friendly.

At Climate Smart Missoula, we’re focused on local climate solutions that reduce our community’s carbon footprint while building resilience to changing conditions. Currently, we’re moving forward on a couple of exciting projects to help our community use less energy, with an eye toward being inclusive and accessible to all.

One of those projects is our Energy Smart Challenge, geared toward helping residents save energy at home. In 2017, 100 Missoulians participated in the pilot round of the Challenge, receiving weekly emails with different home energy-saving activities, and earning points and prizes by taking action.

Feedback from this pilot is now helping inform the next stage of the challenge: a collaboration with a bright group of University of Montana computer science students who are developing a web-based platform for residential energy savings.

With this Missoula-specific program, renters and homeowners alike will be able to access personalized tips and resources to cut home energy use, track their individual energy savings and our collective community savings over time, and more. We’re excited to have a tool like this that will make it fun and easy to shrink the residential energy piece of our carbon footprint.

Climate Smart is also working on a new pilot project aimed at improving energy efficiency and health for residents of manufactured homes, in partnership with NeighborWorks Montana, the Human Resource Council and Home ReSource.

This collaborative, community scale effort targets manufactured homes in particular because upgrades are especially cost-effective, given high average rates of heat loss and wasted energy.

When it’s up and running, the project will offer a range of energy improvements for residents, from weatherization services such as air-sealing doors and windows, to LED lights and other basic energy-saving measures, to more complex upgrades that boost insulation R-values and significantly reduce heat loss.

The link between social equity and energy efficiency is engrained in the mission of this project. Reducing energy costs and making homes healthier for vulnerable residents while also shrinking collective energy use is a win-win for our community.

The Department of Energy estimates a 5 to 30 percent energy bill savings by implementing energy efficiency upgrades associated with weatherization. Mitigating residents’ energy cost burden translates into additional resources for other basic living needs.

Weatherization measures can also have surprising health benefits. For example, a recent study found 12 percent fewer asthma-related emergency room visits among households receiving weatherization services, with the greatest overall benefits among lower-income households and residents with pre-existing medical conditions.

As summers become warmer and wildfire smoke season gets longer and more intense, improving insulation and ventilation in manufactured homes will help our most vulnerable community members cope.

This project highlights the link between the two key paths to addressing climate change: reducing our carbon footprint and building resilience to changing conditions through solutions that are equitable and inclusive.

These Energy Smart projects and more will be on the agenda at our next Climate Smart Monthly Meetup, Thursday, Feb. 1. Join us for an informal conversation about green building and energy efficiency and help us move forward with these efforts and more.

Sustainability Events:

Feb. 1: Climate Smart Missoula’s “Monthly Meetup” at Imagine Nation Brewing, where energy efficiency and energy conservation is the topic. 5-7 p.m.

Feb. 7Solar-Ease workshop at the Missoula Federal Credit Union’s Brooks St. Center from 6 – 8 p.m., with presentation at 6:30.

Feb 8“To the Ends of the Earth” documentary screening at the Roxy Theater at 7 p.m.

Abby Huseth is the energy program coordinator and Max Longo is the Energy Corps/AmeriCorps service member at Climate Smart Missoula. This column is part of a 2018 weekly Missoula Current series, Sustainable Missoula, which highlights community sustainability efforts.