Mount Vernon Energy Fair Highlights Geothermal and Solar

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

By Mary Paden, Reprinted from the Mount Vernon Voice

Representatives of local places of worship and area homeowners heard practical advice on how to use renewable energy for space heating and cooling at the “Toward Net Zero Energy Fair” last November, hosted by the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church (MVUC), which recently converted to geothermal-solar energy. The fair, attended by about 60 people, was an effort to connect local religious groups and homeowners with information about financial incentives and local vendors to explore whether they might be able to wean themselves from the power grid.

MVUC has been operating without a conventional furnace for two and a half months and is close, but not quite at, receiving net-zero energy from the power grid, according to Ken Pilkenton, the fair organizer and head of the committee that switched the church to geothermal and solar energy last year. The church leases its geothermal system from Shenandoah Sustainable Technologies (SST) of Harrisonburg, Va., to which it pays a monthly bill similar to its former utility bill. At the end of 20 years, the church can purchase the system, which has a life expectancy of 50 years, for a nominal fee. MVUC has the largest rooftop solar installation in Fairfax County.

MVUC Solar PanelsSpeakers at the Toward Net Zero Energy Fair

Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland spoke at the event, promising to work with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to expedite the application process for renewable energy permits (which now takes about six weeks) and cut or eliminate application costs. Hyland included MVUC on his ‘bus tour’ at the February 2012 Mount Vernon Town Hall meeting.

Delegate Scott Surovell, whose district includes the church and who is chair of the House Conservation Caucus, said Virginia lags behind other states in providing incentives for renewable energy. He said Dominion Power has a strong presence in the energy discussion in Richmond and he would be happy to see “a broader clean energy coalition” emerge. Surovell reported that in the 2011 session, legislation passed to require energy auditors to be licensed by the state and Delegate Adam Ebbin passed legislation setting up a low-interest loan fund for homeowners to use for renewable equipment.

Surovell said that despite the current tough climate for passing any legislation that calls for expenditures or tax credits, he hopes to see some of the following issues addressed by the Virginia General Assembly: licensing energy auditors for commercial buildings; requiring training for appraisers to include the true value of renewable energy systems in resale values of homes; prohibitions on homeowners’ associations from restricting solar panels; and potential tax credits for homeowners to install renewable energy equipment, possibly offset by reducing the $45 million coal tax credit.

Surovell also proposed that Dominion Power install solar arrays along roadway right of ways. The power company has already announced a plan to place solar arrays on 40-60 sites, including four churches, in the area to study the long-term effects on the power grid.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), a grassroots organization in the metropolitan area, was represented by Virginia lead organizer Keith Thirion, who said the group’s top priority in Virginia is moving Dominion Power to invest in offshore wind power, which would create 10,000 jobs and power hundreds of thousands of homes with clean, renewable energy.

Chris Lohmann, a financial analyst with the U.S. Department of Energy, said government analysis shows that the most cost-effective way to abate greenhouse gases is through energy conservation, especially in building heating and lighting. According to Lohmann, the most effective ways to save energy are to convert to new lighting and get a home energy audit. He said the government is shifting away from offering incentives for homeowners to invest in renewable systems toward encouraging lenders to invest in these systems.

Carol Cooke, a realtor with Tom Pleimling Realty/Fort Hunt Realty Group at Keller Williams Old Town, said that surveys in other states show that 50 percent of homebuyers are willing to pay more for green features and lower home energy costs. They are especially looking for updated windows, weatherization, efficient heating and cooling systems and water-conserving features.

Energy Fair Panels

Separate panels for religious organizations and for homeowners were held. On the panel for places of worship were Joelle Novey, Executive Director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light (GWIPL); Yasmin Termeh of New Generation Energy, and Les Fettig of Shenandoah Sustainable Technologies, which installed the MVUC system. Novey said her organization supports the “green sheep” in many area congregations, those people who are interested in energy conservation and renewables. GWIPL encourages places of worship to get energy audits and connects those interested in investing in solar energy. New Generation Energy is a Boston-based organization that helps nonprofits, such as places of worship, find funding for green energy projects. It recommends that religious organizations, which are not eligible for tax incentives due to their nonprofit status, partner with a vendor (as MVUC did with SST) or form a separate organization to reduce the initial cost of geothermal-solar installations. Fettig said SST has worked with three churches so far to install geothermal power.

The panel for homeowners included Fettig, George Rennolds, residential sales manager, ADCO Heating and Air; Robert Orange, marketing associate, Standard Solar Energy Solutions; Kent Baake, president, Continuum Energy Solutions; and Margaret Ruhe, realtor with Long & Foster, Old Town Alexandria. Baake noted that he can usually get 20 to 30 percent energy savings on homes following an energy audit through low-cost energy efficiency measures such as caulking and insulation. He noted that an energy audit, and the following fixes, will save money on energy bills, as well as improve home comfort and safety (because he often finds gas leaks). He said the price of solar electric systems has dropped 30 percent recently, making this a good time to buy.

In response to a question about why one should invest in renewable technologies now, when they are changing so fast and could become obsolete, Baake advised homeowners to install the most efficient technology available when it comes time to replace a system. He advised choosing efficiency first, then moving to solar.

“This is no time to wait,” he said. “Share information with others to spread the word. Take little steps to start, and think seven generations into the future.”

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