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Inside story: Austin Energy audits show magnitude of electricity wasted

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 by Bill McCann

The first batch of energy audits required of houses going up for sale in Austin show that most of the houses are wasting a lot of energy—and money—through leaky air conditioning and heating ducts in their attics.

Some 86 percent of the first 310 audits conducted under a new city ordinance have leaking air ducts above the 10 percent or less leakage rate considered acceptable from an energy-efficiency standpoint, according to Austin Energy, which is overseeing the program. The average leak rate of the 310 houses is 22 percent, but some houses have two or three times the average.

Added together, the 310 houses are wasting more than 807,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually from the air ducts alone, or the equivalent of the electricity used in 67 Austin homes in a year, according Austin Energy.

“The results so far are confirming what energy professionals have been saying all along – that homes are wasting a lot of energy,” said Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova. “We believe that the ordinance will help raise public awareness so that people will do something about it.”

Under the ordinance, as of June 1 Austin Energy customers whose houses are going up for sale must get an energy audit by an outside professional, unless the house is less than 10 years old or meets one of several other exceptions. The ordinance also includes provisions for energy audits of apartment buildings and energy ratings for commercial buildings.

The City Council approved the ordinance last November over the objections of some real estate interests. The ordinance does not require a property owner to take steps to improve the house once the audit is complete, but the seller must provide a copy of the audit to a prospective buyer and the energy auditor must provide a copy of the audit to Austin Energy, which is compiling audit information.

Supporters of the ordinance believe that it will help improve the efficiency of the housing stock in Austin, thereby raising the value of homes, reducing energy bills and helping reduce peak power demands on the city electric system. As part of Austin’s Climate Protection Plan to reduce greenhouse gases, the city has a goal of offsetting 700 megawatts of peak power demand by 2020.

Austin Energy officials say the timing is right for Austin homeowners to make energy-efficiency improvements to their homes.

For one thing, Austin Energy and Texas Gas Service are both offering rebates for various energy improvements, Cordova said. Combined, those rebates can total up to $2,000. In addition, new federal law allows up to $1,500 in tax credits for certain energy improvements.

“The resources are out there right now to help people make their homes more energy-efficient,” Cordova said. “That in turn raises the value and reduces the energy bills. There has never been a better time in Austin’s history for people to improve the efficiency of their homes.”

Austin narrowly missed having its ordinance become toothless last month when one legislator attached an amendment to a solar energy bill that would have prevented the city from enforcing the Class C misdemeanor penalty for failing to comply with the ordinance. However, the solar legislation died along with numerous other bills, leaving the penalty for non-compliance intact.

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