Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Reduce Your Energy Bill Now

By Chris HarveyPublished October 4, 2013

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As a Cornell student living in Collegetown, I understand that between the classes, papers, prelims, and parties, we don't have a tremendous amount of time or energy to devote towards working with our landlords to participate in the NYSERDA program. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of small steps we, as well as any others who live in rental housing, can take towards making our dwellings more comfortable and more efficient that should be acceptable your landlord.
This past summer, I had the great experience of working as an energy educator intern for the Energy Corps division of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Here, my focus was to conduct community outreach throughout Tompkins and Seneca Counties to promote the New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)'s Home Performance with ENERGY STAR home energy assessment program. Through this program, individuals can apply to have a contractor come to their home to conduct an energy audit. Using a variety of equipment, including a blower door and an infrared camera, the contractor can identify air leaks in the home, and prepare a comprehensive report on upgrades that will make it more energy efficient, thus reducing your monthly utility bill while making your home a far more comfortable place to live in.

While Home Performance with ENERGY STAR is an effective energy and money saving program, most people do not realize that, depending on income, they are eligible to have the cost of the home energy assessment either partially or completely subsidized by the state. For example, in Tompkins County, a household with an annual income under $147,600 is eligible to have the cost of the assessment to be completely subsidized, and a household with an income under $295,000 is eligible for a reduced cost assessment. If you make over $295,000, you are responsible for the entire cost of the assessment (which is only about $500). While you are responsible for the cost of the upgrades yourself, on average, upgrades usually pay for themselves in less than 10 years through money saved on your monthly utility bill. Given the massive benefits and ultimate zero-cost of the program, there is no reason for homeowners not to participate.

While it is fairly straightforward for homeowners to participate in the program and receive a home energy audit, the biggest obstacle towards effective implementation of NYSERDA's program is the difficulty of participating when you are a renter. The fact that rental properties are owned by a landlord, and often inhabited by multiple families of differing incomes, makes the paperwork incredibly complex, and discourages even the most energy conscious people from applying. Furthermore, there is a split cost incentive that serves as another barrier to applying amongst the rental population. As a landlord, if your tenants pay for utilities, you have no incentive to upgrade your building, as the energy costs are born by tenants. If the landlords pay for utilities, tenants have much less incentive to try and apply for the program, as it will not affect the amount they spend on electricity or heating. This is especially a problem here in Ithaca, where approximately 75% of housing is renter occupied, as opposed to 43% in New York State as a whole. At Cooperative Extension, we are actively researching this barrier and attempting to determine approaches, with both policy and outreach, to address it. Particularly, at the moment, we are researching green leases in which tenants agree to pay slightly higher rent in exchange for their landlord making energy efficiency upgrades to their apartment that will reduce their utility bill.


As a Cornell student living in Collegetown, I understand that between the classes, papers, prelims, and parties, we don't have a tremendous amount of time or energy to devote towards working with our landlords to participate in NYSERDA's program. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of small steps we, as well as any others who live in rental housing, can take towards making our dwellings more comfortable and more efficient that should be acceptable your landlord. First and foremost, replace incandescent light bulbs with CFL bulbs. This will go a long way towards reducing your monthly utility bill, and even if you don't pay for electricity, the light from these bulbs is much brighter and cleaner than inefficient incandescent bulbs. Second, now that the nights are getting cooler, cover your windows with plastic wrap. Doing so will prevent drafts and keep the heat in your bedroom; as such, it will help reduce your utility bill if you pay for heating. While these might seem like insignificant steps to take, if everyone in rental housing did so, it could go a long way towards reducing our carbon footprint and energy costs!