Energy Efficiency, Climate Change and WindowDressers

by Sam Saltonstall, WindowDressers Board President

Recently I asked Efficiency Maine’s Andy Meyer to explain what a “Negawatt” is.  “A Negawatt,” he said smiling, “is a measure of energy not used when people like you make their homes more energy efficient.”  

Efficiency Maine promotes energy efficiency by providing financial incentives which have made items like the 30,000,000 LED light bulbs and 50,000 heat pumps purchased in Maine less expensive.  While no incentives are currently provided specifically for insulating window inserts unless they are part of a larger retrofit, our assembly with you of over 42,500 inserts since we began in 2010, we estimate these inserts have prevented the burning of over 100,000 gallons of heating oil or its equivalent.  That’s a bunch of Negawatts!

Last month two groups of 17 WindowDressers volunteers and customers engaged in a science-based exercise to see if they could mitigate worldwide climate change virtually and hold worldwide temperatures to a 1.5 degree increase.  They were participating in a Zoom workshop hosted by Board President Sam Saltonstall and two of his colleagues from Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and making use of a computerized climate simulation tool called En-Roads.  What role might energy efficiency in buildings play, they wondered?

Working together on a shared screen, they designed a variety of simple scenarios to limit future global warming, trying out all sorts of options – there are 18 sliders to manipulate representing policies, changes to population, changes in economic growth, even the development of some currently nonexistent large scale technology that could remove large amounts of carbon from the air around us.

Two things stood out from their exploration: first, the most effective slider by far represented the implementation of a carbon tax.  Second, it will take a number of mitigation policies in concert to limit greenhouse gas emissions enough to hold temperature increase to 1.5°C by the end of the century – there is no magic bullet.

Nevertheless, by manipulating the “building energy efficiency” slider on the screen to make “virtual” policy changes worldwide, participants could see that realistic but aggressive building efficiency measures alone could limit temperature increase by the end of the century by almost half a degree Celsius lower than the “business as usual” scenario of 3.6° C.

Energy efficiency in buildings is a “high leverage” way to mitigate global warming.  In combination with other policies such as instituting a carbon tax or cutting methane emissions, it is a vital tool with which to limit worldwide temperature increase.  Individuals and businesses who insulate buildings, purchase energy efficient technologies and conserve energy in other ways (like installing window inserts!) are all participating in an important climate change solution.  

There are other benefits of energy efficiency too: cleaner air, better health, improved worker productivity, along with lower energy bills and increased national energy security.  As window insert owners know, well air sealed and insulated homes are more comfortable and easier to heat.  Tackling building efficiency on a broad scale here in Maine will be a job creator too.

The Maine Climate Council’s recommendations call for a rapid acceleration of weatherization efforts for low and middle income homeowners.  With over 500,000 dwelling units in Maine and reputedly the oldest housing stock in the nation, it will be a challenge to retrain enough workers to tackle this effort with sufficient haste.

One MCC recommendation stands out to us at WindowDressers: “Expand (the) reach of initiatives to supply and install low-cost insulating window inserts that function as interior-mounted storm windows, improve the warmth and comfort of homes, lower heating costs, and reduce CO2 emissions.”  Sounds a lot like our mission statement.  But how will the State accomplish this?

We intend to do our share.  Year 5 of our recently updated Strategic Plan foresees the production of 18,600 inserts, more than double the 9,000 inserts we hope to assemble in our coming season if the pandemic finally allows us.  As we grow and expand into other New England states, we remain committed to providing between 25 and 35% of our output to the energy insecure.  We want you to know that you are always welcome at WindowDressers workshops regardless of who you are, what you believe and how fat your wallet is. We strive to help reduce the many inequities in our society by encouraging and enabling everyone who wishes to participate in our programs.  We seek diversity, equity and inclusiveness in our participants, volunteers, staff, and board members.

Four thousand dollar heat pumps harvesting warmth from the outdoor cold are a groundbreaking heating improvement.  Million dollar wind turbines that can power a home for more than 24 hours with just one turn of their blades are stunning.  But there is something equally impressive about the humble and elegantly simple forty dollar window insert, which builds community in our hometowns and helps folks who struggle to make ends meet, while harvesting Andy Meyer’s Negawatts just as nice as could be.  

Thanks to all of you for making that possible!

-Sam Saltonstall, Board President