Duluth, Fargo vie to be nation's most conservative city (on energy)

Mike Braun pulls out old insulation.
Mike Braun pulls out old insulation with plans to replace it with newer insulation at a house in the east hillside neighborhood of Duluth on a recent Friday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Balanced on his hands and knees in the attic of a century-old Duluth house, Mike Braun aims his flashlight into a dark crawl space. Cobwebs sway gently, and that's not good.

"That's air movement," he says. "That's heat loss."

For the homeowner, it may just be the price of living in an old house. But for Braun, an energy auditor for a Duluth nonprofit called Ecolibrium3, it's part of the ongoing challenge trying to conserve energy in one of the coldest cities in the United States.

Braun's group is spearheading Duluth's efforts to win a national energy saving competition sponsored by Georgetown University. Fifty cities, including Duluth and Fargo, N.D., are among the finalists for a $5 million prize.

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The contest started last January and runs until the end of this year. The more a city can reduce its energy use over those two years, the better its chance of winning.

Duluth and Fargo both want to win, although they are focused on different kinds of details to get there. Fargo is working on games to get its citizens thinking about the little things that can bring energy savings.

Duluth is going house by house, crawl space by crawl space to fix the little inefficiencies — a drafty window here, an old incandescent light bulb there — that can make a huge difference.

Dan Vork volunteers on some carpentry projects.
Volunteer Dan Vork works on carpentry project at a house in Duluth. Vork and other volunteers spent the day at a transitional house making minor repairs aimed at reducing energy use.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"These things are behind the walls, they're tucked away in hidden places," said Braun, who got his start installing solar and wind projects. "We have a lot of inefficiencies that are hidden throughout the houses."

A day of caulking and general air sealing can improve just the air leakage in the house by as much as 20 percent, he said. Just by swapping out incandescent light bulbs for highly efficient LED lights, electricity use can drop by two-thirds, he added.

"Little things in aggregate will make a huge difference. If everyone replaced one incandescent light with an LED light, we would be on our way to winning that competition," said Bret Pence, director of Community Programs for Ecolibrium3, as he walked through the house below Braun with a volunteer, identifying bulbs to swap out.

Quick fix: replacing incandescent bulbs.
Swapping out incandescent light bulbs for highly efficient LED lights can drop electricity use by two-thirds, conservation advocates say.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

It's still a challenge mobilizing people to do the work to make their homes more efficient, said Eric Schlacks, gas and energy coordinator for Duluth Public Works and Utilities. "With energy prices going down like they have," he said, "for many people they're less likely to think about the need for conservation, because they're not feeling the pinch from their pocket book.

So Duluth is creating programs in schools and mobilizing neighborhoods to assess their old housing stock. Utilities offer rebates on supplies and discounts on home energy audits.

Another challenge, in Duluth and nationwide, is how to improve the efficiency of homes with low-income residents.

Some low-income households that don't qualify for energy assistance through the state can spend up to 40 percent of their paychecks on utility bills.

"When that happens, they don't have as much food on the table," said Pence.

And they're definitely not spending money on LED light bulbs. To compound the problem, the people least able to afford those improvements also live in older, less efficient homes that use more energy, so their houses often stay cold and very dark, Pence said.

"We don't want the cold, dark house," he added. "We want to make people have a warm, happy place to go to, and be more energy efficient."

That's the idea behind a program called "Giving Comfort at Home." Pence helps recruit volunteers who take a couple hundred dollars' worth of materials and spend a day making basic energy efficiency improvements to homes.

Heather Wright Wendel blow dries window wrap.
Volunteer Heather Wright Wendel blow dries plastic wrap around a window at a house in Duluth's east hillside neighborhood. The plastic wrap will help keep the cold out and reduce energy costs.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

This year the group worked on 10 homes, next year they're aiming for 50. Pence acknowledges it's a drop in the bucket, but he says they're demonstrating that small steps can make a big difference. He says the energy savings often pay back the initial investment in less than a year.

Fargo hopes to win the competition through social engagement and education — and a game to get people excited about energy savings.

The idea is to start at a personal level and build toward community impact, said project leader Malini Srivastava. "Behavior, buildings and policies are the three tracks along which everything is working."

NDSU asst. professor Malani Srivistava
Malini Srivastava
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Srivastava is a North Dakota State University assistant professor of architecture. Along with colleagues and students, she's designing an online game where schools and neighborhoods can compete for bragging rights and prizes.

And, of course, the game needs a villain.

"We wanted to develop a character which was the evil character who was thriving on wasted energy and we wanted the children to help us design it," she said.

The bad guy's name is Waste-a-Watt and his character is shaped by drawings done by dozens of school kids.

"They were just fantastic," Srivastava chuckled as she placed some of the drawings on her desk. Waste-a-Watt is essentially a composite of what these kids did. We're still working on it, but it's kind of a combination of these two."

He's a scary looking dude with bald head, bulging eyes and of course the villainous snidely whiplash mustache.

Energy wasting characters designed by school kids
Malini Srivastava displays characters drawn by school kids. The drawings helped shaped the villain for an online game tied to getting people excited about saving energy.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"And what you are doing is by each level and challenge you meet is you are capturing Waste-a-Watt and planting a tree," she said.

The game involves completing tasks to advance to different levels. A first level might be reading about energy saving light bulbs. The second level might be replacing five old light bulbs in your home.

"We're asking people to learn, become aware," Srivastava said. "We're asking people to act on their own homes to save cost and then we're asking people to invite their friends and family to join the effort."

That's the sweet spot for Fargo city commissioner and energy conservation advocate Mike Williams. He expects some spirited competition between schools and neighborhoods.

Fargo also plans to showcase affordable energy efficient housing as part of the competition.

Srivastava's architecture students at North Dakota State will design and build a passive house on a budget allowed by Habitat for Humanity. It will also provide a path others can follow as they try to save energy.

"What research has found is people when they are given information just knowing information helps change behavior towards being more efficient," she said. "It's sort of like people start gaming themselves."

Williams says in the first six months of the competition Fargo cut energy use by more than $3 million.

He admits warmer than normal winter weather played a role, but he says basic consumer education made a difference, and he expects education to pay dividends long after the competition.

"The $5 million prize ... that'd be great to win. But in the meantime we're going to be saving much more than $5 million and we've been able to prove that already."

Fargo's Waste-a-Watt game is expected to launch in late January. The passive energy house will be built in July. And Fargo and Duluth will find out at the end of the year if they've saved enough to take home the prize.

Kraker reported from Duluth. Gunderson reported from Fargo.