Financing Energy Efficiency

  • More than half the houses in the U.S. were built before 1970. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laborator)

Reducing your carbon footprint
by using less energy can cost
money. Efficient cars, energy
efficient homes, and energy-saving
appliances all take money. That’s
why some states are testing whether
homeowners would be willing
to borrow money to upgrade their
homes and, in turn, save a few
bucks in energy costs. In one
state, the plan is to get private
banks and credit unions to finance
energy efficiency. Peter Payette reports:

Transcript

Reducing your carbon footprint
by using less energy can cost
money. Efficient cars, energy
efficient homes, and energy-saving
appliances all take money. That’s
why some states are testing whether
homeowners would be willing
to borrow money to upgrade their
homes and, in turn, save a few
bucks in energy costs. In one
state, the plan is to get private
banks and credit unions to finance
energy efficiency. Peter Payette reports:

When you hear green building, you might think of a fancy new house with solar panels. But most homes are not new, so reducing the amount of energy communities use means doing something about old houses.

Max Strickland owns a business in Michigan that certifies green homes and buildings. He says more than half the houses in the U.S. were built before 1970.

“We had very little energy code requirements previous to that.”

But upgrades cost money that many homes owners don’t always have. And a lot of people saw whatever equity they had in their house disappear during the past couple of years.

Now, the State of Michigan is trying to help people find the money to make their homes more energy efficient. The program is called Michigan Saves. The state launched the pilot project in a rural area of the state. The pilot is a collaboration of a local credit union, an electric cooperative and a building supply company.
Borrowers will have their new payment tacked onto their monthly utility bill.

Trevor Williams is with Brown Lumber, the building supply company involved in the pilot. Williams says it’s likely most of the improvements will be in heating costs. He says to begin with, home owners will be encouraged to have an energy audit.

“The audit it would say things that need to be done, the top three things that are recommended. Furnace replacement, ceiling ducts and weatherizing the house those going to be the three most common items.”

But homeowners can also borrow money for new energy efficient appliances like refrigerators and hot water heaters. Sometimes loans like this are promoted as immediately paying for themselves. That is, it’s suggested the money you save on your utility bills will fully cover your new payment. That’s not necessarily the case.

Marc McKeller is with Members Credit Union which is financing the project. He says after a few years, people will be able to break even on the costs. Government tax incentives and other rebates will help that happen. But McKellar says people shouldn’t expect to take out a loan, retrofit their house and not have more to pay each month.

“The only way it could be was if a government was to give zero percent loans out and that they received tremendous rebates from the utilities and that they received a tremendous government credit.”


But, McKellar says it’s still a good deal. The interest rate for project’s loans will be a little bit better because the state is backing the loans.

And tight credit means not many banks are loaning people money to make their house energy efficient and not many people are putting money into a home that’s lost value because of the housing market bust. That’s one of the reasons they need to run a pilot project.

“They’re trying to determine through this study, how do you get a consumer to actually do this and what are the benefits?”

The directors of Michigan Saves hope to roll out a statewide program later this year. So far no banks have agreed to participate but there are other credit unions interested in the concept.

For The Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

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Nuclear Loans Guaranteed

  • If all goes according to plan, the nuclear reactors will go up in six to seven years and cost around 14 billion dollars. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

The Obama Administration
announced that it will back
the cost of constructing two
new nuclear reactors. Mark
Brush reports, if they’re
constructed, they’ll be the
first reactors built in the
country in nearly three decades:

Transcript

The Obama Administration
announced that it will back
the cost of constructing two
new nuclear reactors. Mark
Brush reports, if they’re
constructed, they’ll be the
first reactors built in the
country in nearly three decades:

The Southern Company plans to build the reactors in Georgia. They say, if all goes well, they’ll go up in six to seven years and cost around 14 billion dollars.


Investors have seen nuclear energy as a risky bet. But now that the President says the government will guarantee the loans, Wall Street might be enticed back to nuclear energy.

And then there’s the question of safety. President Obama’s Energy Secretary is Steven Chu. He says these new generation reactors are safe.

“We expect that the newer generation reactors will be ideally completely passively safe. Which means that, uh, you don’t actually need to control the reactor. If you lose control of it, it will not melt down.”

Some environmentalists say nuclear energy is not worth the costs – and there’s still no permanent place to store nuclear waste that’s radioactive for thousands of years.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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Epa Calculates Illnesses Caused by Sewage Overflows

Sewage overflows during heavy rains have long been implicated in illnesses in people. For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has come up with an estimate of just how many people are getting sick from swimming at contaminated beaches. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:

Transcript

Sewage overflows during heavy rains have long been implicated in
illnesses in people. For the first time, the Environmental Protection
Agency has come up with an estimate of just how many people are getting
sick from swimming at contaminated beaches. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:


The EPA estimates that somewhere between 3,500 and 5,500 beachgoers get sick
every year when untreated sewage is flushed into rivers, streams and lakes
by heavy rains. The EPA’s Ben Grumbles says the report is another reason
for cities to fix their aging sewage systems – despite the high cost.


“And it can literally add up to hundreds of millions, a couple of billion dollars, for
very large cities, to fix the problem for the long-term.”


Grumbles says many communities can avoid that bigger expense by investing
in new technologies to better manage existing systems – and keeping pipes
well-maintained and free of debris.


Environmental groups say they hope legislators are listening. Congress just reduced
the fund from which communities can get loans for sewer projects by 500 million dollars.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tracy Samilton.

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RACE’S ROLE IN URBAN SPRAWL (Part I)

  • Urban sprawl sometimes conjures up images of subdivisions sprouting up in cornfields. But land use experts say the term should also include a focus on the central cities that are left behind. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Experts seldom talk about one of the driving forces behind urban sprawl. White flight began the exodus of whites from city centers, and racial segregation is still a factor in perpetuating sprawl. In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on the issue that’s often overlooked:

Transcript

Experts seldom talk about one of the driving forces behind urban sprawl. White
flight began the
exodus of whites from city centers, and racial segregation is still a factor in
perpetuating sprawl.
In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on the issue that’s often
overlooked:


Land use advocates argue that urban sprawl and deteriorating inner cities are two
sides of the
same coin. The tax money that pays for new roads and sewer systems for sprawl and the
investments that pay for new strip malls is money that’s spent at the expense of
city centers
because it’s not invested there.


For the most part, all of that investment is made in communities that are
overwhelmingly white.
Those left behind in the cities are often people of color who are struggling with
high taxes to pay
for the deteriorating infrastructure and government services designed for
populations much larger
than are left today.


White flight was aided by government and business institutions. Government home
loans for
veterans of World War II that made those nice subdivisions possible didn’t seem to
make it into
the hands of black veterans. Banks often followed a practice of redlining. And
real estate
brokers also worked to make sure the races remained segregated.


Reynolds Farley is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Population
Studies
Center. Farley says today, when planners and government officials talk about white
flight and
segregation, they talk in the past tense. They don’t like to acknowledge that
racism like that
still exists…


“Well, I think there is a lot of effort to underestimate the continued importance of
racial
discrimination and the importance of race in choosing a place to live. There’s been
a modest
decrease in segregation in the last 20 years. Nevertheless, it would be a serious
mistake to
overlook the importance of race in the future of the older cities of the Northeast
and Midwest.”


Farley says as recently as two years ago a federal government study looked at real
estate
marketing practices and found there were still “code phrases” that indicated whether
neighborhoods were white or black.


“Subtle words would clearly convey to white customers the possibility that there are
blacks
living there, the schools aren’t in good quality. And the subtle words could convey
to blacks
that they wouldn’t be welcomed in living in a white neighborhood.”


In the North… racism has evolved from overt to covert. It’s a wariness between
the races not talked about in polite society. It becomes more evident as solidly
middle-class blacks begin to move into older suburbs and whites flee once again to
newer
subdivisions even farther from the city core.


Land Use and ‘Smart Growth’ advocates say it’s time to face up to the continuing
practice of
segregation. Charlene Crowell is with the Michigan Land Use Institute. She says it
starts by
talking about the fears between white people and black people.


“By not addressing those fears, the isolation and the separation has grown. So,
until we are able
to talk and communicate candidly, then we’ll continue to have our problems.”


But it’s uncomfortable for most people to talk about race with people of another
race. Often we
don’t talk frankly. Crowell says we’ll be forced to deal with our feelings about
race sooner or
later. That’s because as more African-Americans join the middle-class, the suburbs
are no longer
exclusively white…


“My hope is that those who feel comfortable in moving further and further away from
the urban
core will come to understand that they cannot run, that there are in fact black
homeowners who
are in the suburbs and moving into the McMansions just as many whites are. And we
all have to
look at each other. And we all have to understand that this is one country and we
are one
people.”


In cities such as Detroit, white flight led to rampant urban sprawl in the
surrounding areas
and left huge pockets of poverty and streets of abandoned houses in the inner city.
Heaster
Wheeler is the Executive Director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. He says
while his
constituents often worry about more pressing urban issues, he knows that it’s
important that
African-Americans living in the city recognize farmland preservation and urban
revitalization
are connected. The investment that paves over a corn field is investment that’s not
going to
rebuild the city. But… black politicians largely have not been
involved in land use issues and usually they’re not asked to get involved…


“There is a racial divide on this particular issue. Often times African-Americans,
people of color and folk who live in the urban centers are not present at the
discussions about
Smart Growth.”


Wheeler says policymakers on both sides of the racial divide need to recognize that
land use
issues are as much about abandoned city centers as they are about disappearing
farmland…
which could put urban legislators and rural legislators on the same team. That’s a
coalition
that could carry a lot of sway in many states.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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IS IT SPRAWL? OR URBAN ABANDONMENT? (Part II)

  • Urban sprawl doesn't just alter the land in the suburbs. Central cities are affected by the loss of investment when people leave the cities and tax dollars are instead invested in building roads and sewers in the surrounding areas. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Concern about urban sprawl is often limited to the loss of farmland, traffic congestion, and unattractive development. But urban sprawl has other impacts. Building the roads and sewers to serve new subdivisions uses state and federal tax money, often at the expense of the large cities that are losing population to the suburbs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham looks at the divide between city and suburb:

Transcript

Concern about urban sprawl is often limited to the loss of farmland, traffic
congestion, and unattractive development. But urban sprawl has other impacts.
Building the roads and sewers to serve new subdivisions uses state and federal tax
money, often at the expense of the large cities that are losing population to the
suburbs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
looks at the divide between city and suburb:


What some people call urban sprawl got started as the federal government’s answer to
a severe housing shortage. There wasn’t a lot of building going
on during the Great Depression. At the end of World War II, returning GIs needed
houses.


Reynolds Farley is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Population
Studies Center. Farley says the federal government offered veterans low-interest
loans and developers started building modest homes on green lawns on the edge of
cities. But because of discrimination, the loans didn’t as often make it into the
hands of African-American veterans. Instead of segregated neighborhoods in the
city, segregation lines were newly drawn between city and
suburb.


“Very low-cost mortgages accelerated the movement of whites from the central city
out to the suburbs… built upon the long racial animosity that characterized cities
beginning at the time of the first World War and continuing, perhaps up to the
present.”


With segregation, there was a shift of wealth. Farley says jobs and purchasing
power were exported to the suburbs with the help of the interstate highway system.
And big new shopping centers displaced retail in downtowns.


People with low-incomes, often people of color, were left behind in cities of
abandoned houses and vacant storefronts that often didn’t have enough tax base to
maintain roads and services.


John Powell is a professor at Ohio State University. He’s written extensively on
urban sprawl and its effects on urban centers.


“So, we move jobs away, we move tax base away, we move good schools away and then
the city becomes really desperate and they’re trying to fix the problems, but all
the resources have been moved away.”


With no way found to fix the cities, whites have been moving out of cities to the
suburbs for decades. And now, middle-class blacks are moving out too. For some
metropolitan areas, leaving the city has become a
matter of income… although Powell says even then African-Americans have a more
difficult time finding a way out.


“Race never drops out of the equation. In reality, even middle-class blacks don’t
have the same mobility to move to opportunity that even working-class whites do
because of the way race works in our society.”


So, segregation continues. But now the line is drawn between middle-class blacks in
the older, inner-ring suburbs, whites in the outer-ring suburbs… and for the most
part in cities such as Detroit, poorer blacks left behind in the central city.


Smarth Growth advocates say part of the answer to urban sprawl is finding a way to
get more money back into the central-cities to make them more attractive to
everyone. That’s worked in cities such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis-St.
Paul. But those cities and their suburbs are predominantly white. For Northern
cities with greater racial divides, cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St.
Louis and Detroit it’s different. A lot of white suburbanites don’t want tax
dollars going to blacks in the city. And African-Americans in the city don’t see
urban sprawl as their issue, so ideas such as tax revenue sharing for a metropolitan
region are not a priority. The issue of regional tax equity that
works in predominantly white regions… becomes muddied by racial animosity in
segregated regions.


“Buzz’ Thomas is state senator in Michigan who has taken on the issue of urban
sprawl and its counterpart, the deterioration of city centers. Senator Thomas says
if state legislatures can’t find an answer to help cities, sprawl in the suburbs
will continue, paving over green space and farmland.


“You know, poverty and jobs and access to health care and access to quality
education are very realistic issues for cities like Detroit. But, a reality is they
go hand-in-hand with sprawl. As your black middle-class moves out of the inner city
because they’re not satisfied with those resolution to those issues. You know, it
links sprawl.”


Senator Thomas says legislators from rural areas and from urban areas are beginning
to realize they have a common issue. But before they can get to discussions of
regional tax equity, they first have to talk about the more difficult issue of
race…


“And have a discussion that might make me uncomfortable, that might make those
that I discuss it with uncomfortable. Only then, I think, can we really adequately
figure out how long it’s going to take us to resolve that issue.”


In the meantime, many cities are still losing population and revenue. Suburbs
continue to sprawl. And farms are becoming subdivisions, retail strip malls and
fast food restaurants.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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