I'm a degreed librarian with over 30 years of experience as an environmental information professional. I'm currently the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainability Information Curator and also manage the Center's strategic communications.
The Senate voted 69–27 on Sept. 21 to allow the US to join an international treaty to curb the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs are industrial gases used in a slew of applications, including as refrigerants in air conditioners and freezers. They are potent greenhouse gases.
A team of scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, U.S., has developed a “smart” food packaging material that is biodegradable, sustainable and antimicrobial. It could also extend the shelf life of fresh fruit by two to three days.
Energy efficiency can save homeowners and renters hundreds of dollars a year, and the new Inflation Reduction Act includes a wealth of home improvement rebates and tax incentives to help Americans secure those saving.
Together, these incentives aim to cut energy costs for consumers who use them by $500 to $1,000 per year and reduce the nation’s climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
With so many options, what are the most cost-effective moves homeowners and renters can make?
My lab at UMass Lowell works on ways to improve sustainability in buildings and homes by finding cost-effective design solutions to decrease their energy demand and carbon footprint. There are two key ways to cut energy use: energy-efficient upgrades and behavior change. Each has clear winners.
Stop the leaks
The biggest payoff for both saving money and reducing emissions is weatherizing the home to stop leaks. Losing cool air in summer and warm air in winter means heating and cooling systems run more, and they’re among the most energy-intensive systems in a home.
Gaps along the baseboard where the wall meets the floor and at windows, doors, pipes, fireplace dampers and electrical outlets are all prime spots for drafts. Fixing those leaks can cut a home’s entire energy use by about 6%, on average, by our estimates. And it’s cheap, since those fixes mostly involve caulk and weather stripping.
The Inflation Reduction Act offers homeowners a hand. It includes a $150 rebate to help pay for a home energy audit that can locate leaks.
While a professional audit can help, it isn’t essential – the Department of Energy website offers guidance for doing your own inspection.
Once you find the leaks, the act includes 30% tax credits with a maximum of $1,200 a year for basic weatherization work, plus rebates up to $1,600 for low- and moderate-income homeowners earning less than 150% of the local median.
Insulation can also reduce energy loss. But with the exception of older homes with poor insulation and homes facing extreme temperatures, it generally doesn’t have as high of a payoff in whole-house energy savings as weatherization or window replacement.
The Inflation Reduction Act includes up to $600 to help pay for window replacement and $250 to replace an exterior door.
Among appliances, upgrading air conditioners and clothes dryers results in the largest environmental and cost benefits; however, HVAC systems – heating, ventilation and air conditioning – come with some of the highest upfront costs.
That includes energy-efficient electric heat pumps, which both heat and cool a home. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a 30% tax credit up to $2,000 available to anyone who purchases and installs a heat pump, in addition to rebates of up to $8,000 for low- and moderate-income households earning less than 150% of the local median income. Some high-efficiency wood-burning stoves also qualify.
The act also provides rebates for low- and moderate-income households for electric stoves of up to $840, heat-pump water heaters of up to $1,750 and heat-pump clothes dryers of up to $840.
Change your behavior in a few easy steps
You can also make a pretty big difference without federal incentives by changing your habits. My dad was energy-efficient before it was hip. His “hobby” was to turn off the lights. This action itself has been among the most cost-saving behavioral changes.
Just turning out the lights for an hour a day can save a home up to $65 per year. Replacing old lightbulbs with LED lighting also cuts energy use. They’re more expensive, but they save money on energy costs.
We found that a homeowner could save $265 per year and reduce emissions even more by adopting a few behavioral changes including unplugging appliances not being used, line-drying clothes, lowering the water heater temperature, setting the thermostat 1 degree warmer at night in summer or 1 degree cooler in winter, turning off lights for an hour a day, and going tech-free for an hour a day.
Some appliances are energy vampires – they draw electricity when plugged in even if you’re not using them. One study in Northern California found that plugged-in devices, such as TVs, cable boxes, computers and smart appliances, that weren’t being used were responsible for as much as 23% of electricity consumption in homes.
Start with a passive solar home
If you’re looking for a home to rent or buy, or even to build, you can make an even bigger difference by looking at how it’s built and powered.
Passive solar homes take advantage of local climate and site conditions, such as having lots of south-facing windows to capture solar energy during cool months to reduce home energy use as much as possible. Then they meet the remaining energy demand with on-site solar energy.
Studies show that for homeowners in cold climates, building a passive design home could cut their energy cost by 14% compared with an average home. That’s before taking solar panels into account.
The Inflation Reduction Act offers a 30% tax credit for rooftop solar and geothermal heating, plus accompanying battery storage, as well as incentives for community solar – larger solar systems owned by several homeowners. It also includes a $5,000 tax credit for developers to build homes to the Energy Department’s Zero Energy Ready Homes standard.
The entire energy and climate package – including incentives for utility-scale renewable energy, carbon capture and electric vehicles – could have a big impact for homeowners’ energy costs and the climate. According to several estimates, it has the potential to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by about 40% by the end of this decade.
An Illinois food service products manufacturer now saves nearly 60% of their base annual cooling energy costs through improvements made in three phases over several years. The plant, which has a 1200 ton chilled water plant, implemented upgrades including pump and tower fan VFDs and enhanced function controls, free cooling, and chiller compressor drive retrofits. The revisions built through successive phases to capture further benefits from more complete utilization of the preceding steps’ capabilities.
The Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP) first opened in 1953 as a missile plant, producing jet engines for the U.S. Army. More than 30 years after its 1980 conversion to an automobile plant, millions of vehicles have rolled off the line at SHAP.
The Sterling Heights facility has undergone extensive overhauls and re-tooling in the last decade. In 2010, Stellantis (formerly FCA) announced it would invest nearly $850 million in a new state-of-the-art paint shop at the SHAP Site, as well as the installation of new machinery, tooling and material-handling equipment. The following year, the company added another $165 million to the investment to build a one million-square-foot body shop.
In 2016, it was announced that the auto giant would invest $1.48 billion to again retool the SHAP site to build the next generation Ram 1500 and support the future growth of the Ram brand. The overhaul included an upgrade of the South paint shop and its Energy Center, which houses chillers, hot water generators, pumps, purified water equipment, non-potable water supplies and associated equipment. Production at the retooled plant launched in March 2018.
The biggest federal climate, clean energy and environmental justice commitment in history is an unprecedented opportunity. The ideas contained in cities’ and companies’ environmental disclosures are a treasure trove to guide policymakers.
Two new reports from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) highlight the potential for successfully and synergistically combining agriculture and solar photovoltaics (PV) technologies on the same land, a practice known as agrivoltaics. With ground-mounted solar deployment projected to triple by 2030, there will be many opportunities to increase agrivoltaic practices.
According to InSPIRE research, there are five central elements that lead to agrivoltaic success:
Climate, Soil, and Environmental Conditions – The location must be appropriate for both solar generation and the desired crops or ground cover. Generally, land that is suitable for solar is suitable for agriculture, as long as the soil can sustain growth.
Configurations, Technologies, and Designs – The choice of solar technology, the site layout, and other infrastructure can affect everything from how much light reaches the solar panels to whether a tractor, if needed, can drive under the panels.
Crop Selection and Cultivation Methods, Seed and Vegetation Designs, and Management Approaches – Agrivoltaic projects should select crops or ground covers that will thrive in the local climate and under solar panels, and that are profitable in local markets.
Compatibilityand Flexibility – Agrivoltaics should be designed to accommodate the competing needs of solar owners, solar operators, and farmers or landowners to allow for efficient agricultural activities.
Collaborationand Partnerships – For any project to succeed, communication and understanding between groups is crucial.
InSPIRE is the largest, longest-running, and most comprehensive agrivoltaics research effort in the world. The project has supported agrivoltaics site design or ongoing research at 28 sites in 11 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.