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Peter Boogaart: On-bill financing key to Holland's home retrofits

Efficiency vet says tightening up houses helps families, city, environment

Clean Energy | February 3, 2015 | By Jim Dulzo

About the Author

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy adviser. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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Holland Home Energy Retrofit Task Force's Peter Boogart, who managed efficiency upgrades in Ottawa County, says such projects cut residents’ costs, boost the community economy, and reduce greenhouse gases.
Holland Home Energy Retrofit Task Force's Peter Boogart, who managed efficiency upgrades in Ottawa County, says such projects cut residents’ costs, boost the community economy, and reduce greenhouse gases. (Photo: Ashley Kimble/HBPW)

Peter Boogaart knows exactly what he’ll do when he retires later this month.

The longtime Holland-area resident is leaving the Ottawa County Community Action Agency after six years of helping low-income families tighten up their homes to cut their often budget-crushing energy bills.

Now the 66-year-old home efficiency veteran will ramp up his already strong volunteer involvement in the Holland Community Energy Plan’s home efficiency retrofit project, which aims to cut gas and electric consumption of each of the city’s 7,000-plus homes by up to 50 percent over 40 years.

Boogaart was active in the process that produced the CEP and the citizen task forces to start implementing it. In 2012, the city council appointed him to the Home Energy Retrofit Task Force, which fashioned a pilot program that is getting ready to expand from its current 50-home goal to involve perhaps 200 a year.

Recently, energy services firm Schneider Electric analyzed the pilot’s first 25 homes, and is signing contracts for the retrofit work its inspections suggest. Homeowners will book long-term loans from Michigan Saves and a local credit union, set at 1.99 percent thanks to an interest rate buy-down.

Boogaart got interested in making homes more comfortable and less expensive to operate through his membership in Holland’s 150-year-old Hope Church, where, in 2002, he became a Caring for Creation coordinator. He liaised with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, hired on at the community action agency, and joined a citizens group that pressed for formation of Holland’s CEP.

He came to see energy use as both a social justice issue—many poor families struggle to pay heating and power bills—and a key to slowing climate change.

“That’s done as much to grow myself as anything I’ve done,” he said of his creation- care work. “I find that being forced to face tough issues drives you deeper into you faith. You can’t just stay on autopilot.”

Now it’s all hands on deck for Boogaart and the taskforce. With the retrofit pilot revved up, and crucial state legislation for on-bill financing in place allowing HBPW to manage retrofit loans via resident’s electric bills, the group will see if the one-stop approach enabled by the law motivates hundreds of homeowners to retrofit their homes.

The task force will track how Schneider and the city meet that challenge.

“Our responsibility is to be the eyes and ears and voice of the community,” Boogaart said. “We need to know, when the pilot is done, how do we hit the ground running? That’s the feedback we are trying to get into the process.”

Recently Boogaart offered his thoughts on the home retrofit project’s implications for Holland and beyond.

Michigan Land Use Institute: Why is the on-bill financing law important?

Peter Boogaart:  It eases the first hurdle for people who want to get involved. We saw that, while people want to make their homes more efficient, they are kind of on their own for financing. They like the savings, but then they have to go to the bank. It can also become difficult when thinking about the future.

If I move in the next seven years, is this still a good investment? That holds people back.

But, with on-bill, the loan is attached to the property, not the person. That allows you to make this investment and still be free to sell at any time, without having to clear this loan first. It removes that worry.

We of course hope we get a very effective interest rate through the Holland Energy Trust [which the city is organizing to assemble low-cost capital]. That would be more appealing than searching for a favorable rate at every bank in town.

And on-bill puts energy use and the loan on one bill. If an energy audit indicates you can save a certain amount of dollars every month by making your house more efficient, it frees up money in your home budget. Then, if you can marry that to the on-bill responsibility, over time you can cover the efficiency work without increasing your budget.

Let’s say, on average, you spend $300 a month on gas and electric and water, and your home analysis finds you can cut that bill in half with a retrofit. That frees up $150 a month to pay the loan, so you can conceivably get work done without coming up with new money. That’s real appealing.

MLUI: How is this different from the BetterBuildings for Michigan projects many communities recently participated in?

Peter Boogaart: This is not just about individuals renovating their homes. Holland wants to be a world-class, energy-efficient city. So we are tasked with our part of attaining that larger goal.

I hope it will be an advantage for us that we look at the CEP as long term. Our goal is a 50-percent cut in energy by 2050. That is a little different than what I’ve heard from BettterBuildings and other programs, which were kind of one-time pushes.

Our mentality is: We need to educate, so we stay on this. That is a huge piece. So, activists can get it rolling, but the community needs to grasp its importance and talk the language, so when our grandchildren are decision makers, they’ve grown up with this knowledge.

That will be one of the really big pieces—the energy literacy that allows intelligent, long-term decisions about how to get better at this.

There are some implicit promises in the CEP that are appealing. I came to this through church; justice issues are important for me, and poor people are important to me. So that means retrofits without leaving anybody behind. We take this goal on as a community, to include everyone.

That raises challenges, but we can’t be a world-class, energy-efficient city and leave anybody behind. Our efficiency goal unites people toward a common goal. It doesn’t matter who you are; we need everybody.

MLUI: How else can a community-wide home efficiency program help Holland?

Peter Boogaart: There is a big community benefit if it’s easier to live in a place where the cost of living is more manageable. It takes pressure off everyone.

The benefits kind of spread out in a city like ours, with older housing stock. Our housing stock is far more inefficient than some other places. That’s the bad news. The good is that there’s a lot of money to be saved. If the community makes an investment together, the savings become a community asset.

By the time we are done, it means $10 million stays in town every year that would otherwise buy more energy. That stimulates all sorts of other business activity. If all the pieces of the CEP are implemented, it’s $40 million every year.

Think about the whole process of upgrading our homes, making them more valuable. At some point, someone else moves in, and so the tax base moves up. We would have steady growth of our tax base. That helps city services.

Also, we have a large industrial base. For people who want to do business in this area, having prime housing stock is a good way to attract people. An efficiency retrofit program communicates that Holland is on top of stuff.

Our park system, beaches, quality of life, industrial base are tremendous. But we can’t sit on our laurels. Energy policy will determine our future.

MLUI: What’s Schneider discovering in their home analyses?

Peter Boogaart: We saw a spreadsheet with the first 25 homes, not by name, but with the measurements. The savings they could produce vary, of course, but if I remember correctly, they range from 20 to 40 percent. Schneider will bring specific proposals back to each homeowner, with good, better, and best scenarios, related to how many dollars they want to spend, how aggressive they want to be.

MLUI: What would you say to other municipal utilities in Michigan, now that they can do on-bill home efficiency financing?

Peter Boogart: I would say you’ve got to take a look at it. I understand it may be a change, but it presents a tremendous opportunity. As I listen to the broader discussion around utilities, its clear that the way we’ve played the ballgame over the last 100 years isn’t going to hold up.

Distributed generation [rooftop solar panels] is putting a lot of pressure on their business models. But just burning more stuff to make electricity isn’t going to survive this century.

We have to allow utilities the elbowroom to make profits in different ways. Selling as much energy as possible is where their money comes from now, but in the long run they have to redefine themselves as energy managers.

A utility must be willing to look at how both they and you deploy resources. Utilities could drive that, but they must be allowed to profit from it. For example, can they function in ways that help with electric cars? They have to give themselves permission to use new business models that pursue things not previously part of their job.

Utilities all over the state have that opportunity right now.

Look beyond our borders: Energy and fuels are now global commodities. The more commoditized they become, the more vulnerable each of us becomes to that global market. We can’t ignore that challenge and just hope things will work out.

MLUI: Do you see indications this project can work when it scales up?

Boogart: We have had broad-based community support. When we announced the pilot program, we were in same position JFK was in saying we would go to the moon, even though we did not know how we would do it.

But we rather quickly had 100 people show up with $100 deposit checks saying, I want in. To me, that is a strong indicator of a community that wants to go in a certain direction. So I’m encouraged.

If you can rely on anecdotal evidence, I’m also encouraged. Anecdotal is people who talk to me in church and tell me they are reading the articles in the Holland Sentinel. [The column is called “Retrofit Report”] We have folks in the task force who tell me how it is going. I have people I meet through work asking me, “How is that energy plan going?”

I think a certain critical mass of interest has been established. The critical piece for us right now is to keep that faith. The pilot program has to show that all of this wonderful talk can be turned into reality.

MLUI: Are there lessons you learned from the Ottawa County’s weatherization program that can apply throughout Holland?

Boogart:  Yes. One is that, when we talk about facing an entire community and all the homes in it, you don’t face one problem, you face a lot of different problems, each of which needs to be solved.

The folks in low-income situations because of their finances face different hurdles, so we need to understand what impedes their ability to participate.

You don’t have a single problem. You have lots of problems, all in the way of getting to that goal.

MLUI: And what have you learned about the actual practice of efficiency retrofitting?

Boogart: If I’ve learned one thing, it is that a house is a physically dynamic place, like a Calder sculpture, with those hanging pieces that look so pretty. Change one piece, and the whole balance shifts.

If you are going to work on a house, understand that if you change something, you are not necessarily sure of how the balance inside the house will change. So you need to understand the building science involved when you’re diagnosing problems.

When you work on a house, it takes time; you can’t just whip through this as a simple installation.

MLUI: Any other thoughts about the CEP?

Boogart: I’m very cognizant of the fact that, in 1893, this community made a decision to form a board of public works, although a lot of folks thought it was a bad idea.

But 100 years later, nobody is saying, “doggone it, we have our own power plant—what a shame!” Everybody understands that that decision set the table for the next 100 years of growth in Holland.

Now we are back at that point. Look at the globalization of energy markets. Coal is a global commodity now; it goes to whoever pays the most. It doesn’t matter where they mined it. Gas is the same. Nuclear power was going to be in everybody’s future until the Fukushima tidal wave and fire. Then the whole world backed away.

That kind of volatility is going to characterize the world we live in. So, preparing for what we know is coming is essential. It means we need to be as efficient as possible with what we have, because of these kinds of surprises that will come.

So, we are back at the same point we were 100 years ago. We are setting the table for the next 100, 150 years now.

I get excited about that. Quite frankly, we need to do it. I know it is politically incorrect in some circles to talk about climate change, but science is science and it doesn’t matter what you think. We have to deal with what is really happening in the world.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org

1 Comment

3365 days ago, 1:35pm | by tom | Report Comment

Three cheers for Mr. Boogart and the Holland team. The opportunity of having a municipal utility are huge. $10 mil a year staying in the community is a great place to start. And the energy intelligence that the community has gained sets up the area as a mecca for the smart thinkers of tomorrow. I wonder if other municipal utilities have residents ready to take real action like Holland?

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