City ramps up battle against energy costs, overuse
By Jamie Smith Hopkins
Money from Exelon-Constellation merger fund is financing a broader, more integrated effort in Baltimore
Valorie Cooley was "in a really bad place" a year ago, with a broken furnace and past-due heating bills she couldn't pay.
Now her Baltimore home has a new furnace and a raft of energy-efficient improvements — including insulation in the attic and caulking around the windows — that pulled her Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. bill down to a level she can afford. All coordinated by city government.
That's one example of how Baltimore agencies have attacked energy costs in recent years — their own as well as residents' and businesses'. Such work had been handled through a series of loosely connected programs, funded by a patchwork of federal, state and nonprofit grants.
Not any more. In several months Baltimore will receive its first infusion from a three-year, $52.9 million award for energy innovation, and that promised money — along with the effort to win it — transformed scattered programs into what the city thinks will be a much broader and more effective effort.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said it's ultimately about everyone — city agencies and individuals — freeing up cash to use on other priorities.
"No one has ever told us they want us to spend more money on our energy use," she said. "We're going to be working very closely to create as large an energy savings as possible."
The new money financing Baltimore's efforts comes from a $113.5 million fund that state regulators required Exelon Corp. to set up as it acquired Baltimore's Constellation Energy Group, parent of BGE. Maryland's Public Service Commission, which announced recipients in November, gave Baltimore the largest share.
The commission, faced with nearly 100 proposals for the money, wanted plans that could kick-start lasting change as opposed to fleeting savings. Its order praised the "breadth and detail" of the city's application, particularly "the way in which the individual components of the program coordinated with each other to maximize effectiveness."
The effort reaches beyond energy use. Ken Strong, who oversees green, healthy and sustainable home efforts for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said city agencies are reorganizing their efforts to knit energy help together with other sorts of assistance, including financial literacy and home rehabilitation.
The goal is to "break the cycle of energy crisis" that thousands of city residents are caught in, the city told the Public Service Commission in its application.
Now, when low-income residents contact the city's Community Action Centers for help paying BGE bills, they also get a primer on how to reduce costs by using power differently. And case managers have begun offering a rundown of other help to apply for, including the earned income tax credit and weatherization.
Weatherization — sealing the gaps where air escapes or comes in — is a key way to lower bills in old, energy-guzzling homes. But the city, which ramped up that effort in 2009 with a federal stimulus grant, found that half its initial applicants had homes in such bad condition — leaking roofs, mold, lead paint — that they couldn't be weatherized without performing other work first.
The city's housing department tapped other grants and programs to make some fixes. But the new funding will expand those efforts, Strong said. Replacing old heating systems to convert families from oil to cheaper natural gas, for instance, will save the average household more than $970 a year, he said.
•Helping nonprofits and small businesses lower costs. City officials want groups that serve the poor to get energy-efficiency upgrades so they can plow savings back into the community.
•Expanding energy education. The city's Baltimore Energy Challenge, launched in 2009 to teach residents and business owners how to save energy (and money), expects to increase in-home visits from 4,000 a year to 6,200 and put more energy-saving items in kits handed out to participants.
•Producing energy. Thanks to low natural-gas costs and new technology, building micro power plants of one or two megawatts "is looking economical," said Ted Atwood, director of the city's energy office. The city plans to use some of the new funding to help establish several such plants in hopes of driving down energy costs, improving reliability at key sites such as water-treatment plants and perhaps supplying electricity to others.
•Enlisting leafy help. Officials are coordinating efforts such as the city's TreeBaltimore program to get more trees planted in low-vegetation areas, which typically are hotter. The goal is to lower air and building temperatures. "Residents are really open to … the tie-in between tree planting and energy savings," said Alice Kennedy, sustainability coordinator at the city's Office of Sustainability.
Cooley, of Belair-Edison, is very happy about her brush with energy help. She and her son live together, both on fixed incomes, and she said their BGE bills overwhelmed them before the city's energy-efficiency improvements.
"It was like [a] knight on a white horse," said Cooley, 58.
Her monthly energy bill went from $200 on average — sometimes a lot more — to $135. That drop includes her own efforts, after a primer from the city, to turn off lights and unplug everything when not in use. Now she's an "energy captain" in the Baltimore Energy Challenge, teaching others what she learned.
"I know a lot of people out there that's struggling to make it," Cooley said. "With the grace of God and my big mouth, I'm going to spread the word."
Inez Robb, an energy captain active in the Sandtown-Winchester area, is another enthusiastic preacher of energy conservation. Her bill dropped significantly after she followed the city's suggestions about installing a programmable thermostat, using compact florescent light bulbs, plugging appliances into power strips, insulating outlets and the like.
She likes to get hands-on in people's homes, pointing out energy-suckers.
"When you physically show them, they really get it," said Robb, a retired IT specialist.
Kennedy, with the city's Office of Sustainability, is animated about the opportunity to reach more people and intertwine education with everything else, from weatherization to tree-planting.
"We literally are changing the lives of residents in Baltimore City for the better," she said.
Baltimore has a variety of intertwining programs to help people lower their energy costs. Where to call:
•For weatherization and lack-of-heat emergencies: 311
•For low-income residents seeking help paying utility bills: 410-396-5555
•For nonprofits and small businesses in need of energy-efficiency upgrades: 410-396-4360
•For residents and businesses looking for ways to reduce energy use through the Baltimore Energy Challenge: 410-927-6088