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Homes Going Green, For Free Under A New Green Deal

Deloraine Houle is getting on-the-job training through Winnipeg’s BUILD, which steers men and women into the building trades.

A new inner-city program – called On-Meter Finance – the first of its kind in North America, could see 400 leaky North End rentals get energy retrofits in the next year.

That’s 400 down, 79,600 more to go.

This fall, thanks to a new tweak in Manitoba Hydro’s legislation, two inner-city renovation agencies are hoping to go door to door, block by block… offering renters thousands of dollars in renovations, effectively for free.

Manitoba Hydro fronts the cost of new insulation, high-efficiency furnaces, low-flow toilets and a menu of other green fixes, and then adds the cost to the renter’s monthly bill. Because the home is using far less natural gas and electricity, the renter’s bill goes down as much or more as the monthly payback on the retrofits. And, for the first time, the loan stays with the house. A renter doesn’t have to pay it off if he moves, and the benefit rolls over to the new tenant.

The On-Meter finance idea has been percolating for years….

“This is huge,” said Shaun Loney, executive director of BUILD, one of the pioneers of inner-city energy retrofits. “This would be a game-changer for poverty reduction and climate-change mitigation.” 

Lucas Stewart, GM of Manitoba Green Retrofit, one of the non-profits likely leading the charge this fall, says he is already ramping up… and will get many of their workers from Winnipeg’s BUILD, which hires low-income, mostly unemployed aboriginal men and women who get months of on-the-job training, a head start toward a journeyman’s ticket and perhaps a way out of chronic crime and welfare.

BUILD is busy retrofitting 66 Manitoba Housing townhomes in North Kildonan. There, several crews are upgrading the basement and attic insulation, replacing the toilets and faucets with low-flow models and even replacing light bulbs.

“My grandmother is kind of proud of me,” said BUILD worker Deloraine Houle as she framed in some basement insulation. “I’m the first girl in my family in carpentry.” (Story and link from Winnipeg Free Press.)



For the U.S., what’s perhaps worth thinking about  is this:

1. For starters, this program works perfectly well not just in low-income neighbourhoods, but in middle-class areas as well. In fact, it was originally designed for middle-class, owner-occupied housing.

2. Now imagine getting your house retrofitted to save energy (insulation installed, etc.) or having solar systems or a heat pump put in – but without you having to pay upfront, or borrow money upfront, or in any way having your finances affected. 

Imagine instead that the utility came to your door, paid the entire upfront capital cost of the work, and even organized the installation (guaranteeing quality control and contractor performance as well.)

In short, all those upfront hassles and barriers to getting work done (work that you’ve “always known” you should get around to) were taken away – no need to call to get contractors and their estimates and worry about the quality of their work, no need to work out what mix of tasks you should get done to maximize your savings, no need to hassle with the banks or worry about the money.

Repeat. No need to worry about the money.

Instead, imagine that all you have to do is repay a monthly amount, on your utility bill. An amount that was lower than the savings you were getting on your bill. e.g. The retrofit will cut your utility bill by $100/month, but cost you only $75.

Imagine that even if you moved, you weren’t stuck with a big loan to be repaid – rather, the ongoing payments would simply move over to the new owners/tenants.

3. Now, imagine the amount of capital investment – and associated job creation – this would trigger in society. Enough to make any previous bold talk about “Green Jobs” seem like a whisper.

If you wanted to quantify it, estimate that an average home would have $5,000 to $25,000 (or more) worth of potential work available, work that could pay for itself in savings. Try calculating that across a nation, even just at say, 10 million homes times say, $10,000 each. 50 million homes? 

Yeah. It’s a lot either way.

Now imagine the number of jobs – and the geographic spread – which would be created in the building trades, for installers, labourers, retailers, local suppliers, etc.

What the utilities would be doing through this project would be investing in a “decentralized mega-project” – one with an enormously high labour content. Which is precisely what coal and natural gas do not have. Plus, this one would be non-polluting, no GHGs.

So. Tens and hundreds of billions to be invested in cost-saving, productivity-enhancing, profit-making, polluting-slashing, local work. And it’s all there, today, for the taking. Maybe you can think of some organizations which might like to invest? Anybody want some 3%, 4%, 5% rates of return on 10 or 20 year investments? Fine.

Perhaps our pension funds mighty want to invest alongside the utilities. After all, what could make more sense than to invest than in reducing energy bills in buildings where the money saved is basically hard-wired back to repay the investment?

And since utility bill payments have a much lower rate of default than almost any other financial tool, how solid is that?

What say you? Want a New Green Deal with some heft? Want a Public Works project with some oomph?

4. And yes. All this, plus a thousand Deloraine Houles get to become the first girls in their families to move into carpentry.

Personal note. I have a bit of a stake in this one, having – alongside many others – worked on it for 20 years. But it’s great to finally have it seeing the light of day. 20 years though, what a haul. Who would have guessed so long? Particular thanks to the stout-hearts who designed, developed and delivered this… Shaun, Jim, Paul, Greg, Rob, Tim and company in Winnipeg… and back through time to Toronto and Phil and Kai and Wayne and Jack McG and KK and Brad and yes… to our missing Brother Jack. Well done, all.

Links for more:

Winnipeg Free Press story with 1 minute interview with Premier Selinger. Selinger’s a very bright guy (LSE grad and former Finance Minister) who’s always been very keen on this stuff, happy to lead – and who recently led the NDP (Canada’s lefty party) to their 4th straight majority victory in the province, each time winning more seats.

For some background on this – the most successful Lefty Government in North America – on what they’ve accomplished and how they won 4 times in a row, here’s a bit of fun bumpf (as opposed to bum fumpf.)

The New Provincial legislation enabling Hydro to act in this way – scroll down to “On-Meter” section.

A great description from a Provincial Government member, Rob Altemeyer, who helped push it through (interestingly, apparently a veteran of the Seattle protests in his youth.)

This was in no way a purely-Canadian idea, however. People across Canada, the States and beyond have been working to put the pieces together on this for years now. For example, while Manitoba Hydro has been testing it in the inner-city, there’s a small utility (91,000 customers) called Mid-West Energy, out of Kansas, that has been running the largest program to date, called How$mart. About 750 customers have had work done to date, with the jobs coming in at around $6,000 each. Perhaps not huge, but that’s probably 50+ person-years of work in a small area so far.

Another way people have been coming at it is through firms like Solar City in California, which offers Leases and PPA’s on solar panels, so you don’t have to pay upfront, but can pay for it per month or per kwh. They say they’ve done 28,000 buildings so far, which is great. [However, their customers have to already have “excellent credit,” and so far they haven’t extended their offer to energy efficiency measures (though they just bought a firm in the EE field.)]

Other models in use see the retrofit cost get attached to and repaid on the property tax bill. While we’ve been interested in that model, it has run into some legal hassles, and also raises the question of why you would want to see a good thing – energy savings, solar power etc. – attached to something so politically negative and raising such hostility as a property tax bill. Our thinking was, best to keep energy savings attached to the energy bill, nice and clean and relevant.

Additional discussion at my house, as well as over at kgb’s and Dag.

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