Energy Sovereignty

Archives from the Stop the PSU Pipeline Campaign and the early days of CITY-GREEN

Matt Dahlhausen on Next Steps for Community Energy Planning

In mid-July, just after the PSU Board of Trustees voted to change the gas transmission line route from Borough land to university land, Matt Dahlhausen (MS Candidate in Architectural Engineering) put together a list of proposed next steps for community energy activists:

  • Urge State College Borough Council to adopt model ordinances on home energy efficiency, including rental properties. Offer institutionalized resources at Borough level to help residents get themselves off fossil fuels.
  • Urge at least a doubling of the Penn State energy program funding, currently at $12 million per year.
  • Expand energy awareness programs; get creative
  • Establish twice yearly energy roundtables including Borough and campus residents, Penn State leaders, and Borough leaders to update everyone on long-term energy planning.
  • Urge PSU to develop a Ground Source Heat Pump transition plan, starting with a feasibility study on well sites, utility locations, and how much existing infrastructure can be used.
  • Once the PSU Right-to-Know exemption is revoked, submit RTK requests regarding the gas research institute and similar corporate contracts.

Here are some of Matt’s presentations on home energy consumption for the average Pennsylvania house:

Matt’s more specific thoughts on some of these issues:


I agree with Courtney Hayden that it’ll be difficult to get any data from FirstEnergy. When I was working on the EnergyWorks program in Philadelphia, PECO, the electric utility, was hesitant to release utility data to us even with written homeowner authorization and support from the Mayor’s office. When they did give data, they only released two years. It would be nice to have data specific to individual homes or blocks, to target projects, but data by zip code should be enough to estimate emissions, and I think it’s more useful to work on reducing emissions than getting finer resolution on the baseline emissions data.

In the short term, it may be possible to set up a voluntary benchmarking program for commercial entities in exchange for an energy model with reduction recommendations.  The idea would be to link up a class with the Architectural Engineering department to do energy audits of commercial buildings, and pass on the results of those audits to the owner, tenants, and the borough.

But ultimately, we’ll confront the rights of utilities to sell power.  Mandating greenhouse gas reductions means eventually preventing the sale of natural gas in the borough.  [See: PA Act 129. It requires utilities to reduce the amount of electricity they sell, and will eventually force destruction of the energy-as-commodity business model.]

In the meantime, to meet any meaningful climate goal, communities need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 6% per year, more or less, depending on how much moral responsibility the community wants to live up to. 6% is a lot – it means halving energy use in just over a decade.

Focusing first on cutting all electric use could leave gas use at current levels for 25 years (natural gas accounts for 20% of the borough energy portfolio). This is  unrealistic, so cuts to natural gas use will have to start in about 10 years, phasing out natural gas infrastructure after roughly 20-30 years.

Borough leaders need to start thinking about this soon – perhaps looking into micro-grid management, setting up their own utility, etc.


By far the best thing the Borough can do to cut community-wide greenhouse gas emissions is adopt the most recent international energy conservation code and require all rental units to meet it within a certain deadline – say within 10 years, adding owner-occupied units later. This could cut community energy use by well over 50%.

I strongly recommend a performance-based code, based on a “Home Energy Rating System” rating. By 2014, international residential building codes could be close to zero energy, probably around 90% less heating and cooling energy requirements than the current housing stock. There is a lot of push for a performance based code in the next International Residential Code and International Energy Conservation Code.

I recommend these two articles on the difference between prescription and performance-based codes:


Any conversation about residential energy in the Borough must consider rental properties, because they’re 70% of the residences. The issue here isn’t capital; it’s getting landlords to care about something other than their financial position, which makes this explicitly a class issue. Tenants don’t have the time, money, skills, or authority to retrofit their apartment buildings.

But they could have more leverage to compel landlords to invest in properties. The leverage point is the rental housing health and safety code: the Borough Council setting high standards for safety and efficiency, and the Borough staff rigorously inspecting and enforcing those high standards. The existing sections on combustion safety, water leaks, and thermal comfort are the most relevant.

Right now, inspection and enforcement are weak, and tenants are only able to get access to inspection records through a Right-to-Know request to the inspection office, while property owners automatically get a copy of the inspection reports.

State College could mandate that a copy of the inspection report be sent to the tenant, empowering tenants to force some retrofit work by documenting non-compliance. A lot of rental units would probably fall under the “substantial improvement” category and need to be brought up to the most recent energy code while doing the work.


State College borough code could also be amended to allow sustainable architecture, which is currently illegal. For example, the Borough requires a minimum home size of over 1,000 square feet (I forget the exact number). Borough Council could rezone some places as trailer parks or camping to allow people who want to live in RVs or tiny houses to do so. Borough Council could pass model ordinances to allow composting toilets, and natural building techniques like cobb, strawbale, or used-tire construction.


The borough could also pass an outdoor light pollution ordinance.  It could integrate well with a streetlight and commercial lighting initiative, which would save a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. More info.


Improving local air quality priorities, after the west campus coal plant retrofit to gas, will be phasing out dense oil-fueled boilers in commercial building and residences, having the police stop and issue fines for expired vehicle emissions inspections, and working to disallow truck traffic on College Avenue in the downtown. I asked about these issues during the downtown master plan work sessions, and was told that water, air, and acoustical quality are not master plan components: only aesthetics.


The 2006 greenhouse gas inventory left out material throughput, which is a significant component of greenhouse gas emissions, and also left out food-related energy use; these energy categories present difficult oversight challenges both legally and practically.

Even though the Borough can’t do much to prevent production of waste, there’s room for improvement on the downstream side, especially enforcing the current recycling and bulk waste ordinances.

One of the most effective measures would be imposing fines for bulk waste dumping and non-recycling during student move-out times, which would raise awareness and incentivize compliance. Or have Borough staff stop picking up trash that has recycling in it, and fine homeowners and tenants or landlords (depending on the lease arrangements) until they sort out the recyclables properly.

The Borough could also set up a furniture bank jointly with PSU, managed by students, to prevent all that furniture from going to the landfill and to reduce new purchases/throughput in future years.


Revolving loan funds have two key limitations, and capital isn’t one of them. West Penn Power’s whole house audit program already pays handsomely for residential retrofits, and Keystone Help is a state program that lends up to $15,000 for energy efficiency improvements at 3% interest. Utility companies also offer hundreds of dollars in rebates as well. Utilities are motivated by a desire to avoid the hassle of building new generating capacity; it’s much cheaper for them to reduce load instead.

The key issue is that most people won’t pay for energy efficiency because they view it as lots of invasive work for a financial return that doesn’t perform as well as their mutual fund. Although most people don’t conduct a cost payback analysis for their car, lawnmower, or furniture, they do a payback analysis for insulation. It’s an idiotic double-standard – held by many people, including many who otherwise consider themselves “green.” For example, it makes more sense to buy a cheap car with 40ish mpg than a Prius at 52 mpg, and invest the saved money into home energy efficiency, because you get a much higher greenhouse gas reduction per dollar there.

The second key problem is that the financial returns for energy efficiency decline steeply after the first 20-30% of savings. After reducing community-wide energy consumption by about 50%, a revolving loan fund would be losing money, although it might take 10-15 years or longer for a municipal fund to reach that inflection point. Revolving loan funds work great at the large institutional level, when there are lots of low-hanging projects. But it’s a medium-term strategy, not a long-term strategy. Another drawback is that capital availability increases over time for a loan fund. Ideally it would be reversed:  frontloading capital is better because energy savings start accumulating as soon as the retrofits are installed.

I’d recommend instead setting up a Community Carbon Bank, to serve as a clearing-house for home energy audits. The first few steps include:

  • Leverage West Penn Power’s whole house program to get audit costs to at or below $100 (but not zero!)
  • Set up a team of do-it-yourselfers or students to volunteer as installation technicians.
  • Once a threshold number of houses have been audited through the program, prioritize projects based on energy savings.
  • Use the volunteer team to do the work, with supplies funded by West Penn Power ($0.30/kwh saved, no limit to total project cost). Other labor compensation possibilities: pay the installers, set up a timeshare system, or give homeowners who contribute work hours higher priority in the project list.
  • Offer mini-grants to homeowners to help offset the cost of projects, but don’t fund them fully.
  • Have homeowners pay for the next audit for their neighbor or friend.
  • Potentially leverage property taxes to set up property-linked financing, funded by the borough through the carbon bank.
  • Encourage community-minded sustainability people to donate capital to the carbon bank, because the money per kilowatt-hour saved will likely be much greater than buying Priuses, especially with all the leveraging taking place.


In my experience, most people are energy idiots; many people graduate from college without a basic understanding of how a toilet works, where energy comes from, what a water heater is and does, how their heating system turns fuel into thermal comfort – and just how much energy these things require in relation to other energy use in their lives.

The PSU Sustainability Institute offers a few programs on “sustainability education,” but few of them focus on practical skills and behaviors. That should be part of residential life education in the dorms; even better would be to start energy education in grade school, so that kids get in the habit of turning off lights and fixing water leaks before they hit puberty.


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