Elk River provides energy education, outreach and audits with Project Conserve

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After a successful pilot program, Elk River's Project Conserve has developed into a 5 year program designed to reduce resident energy use.

Elk River was named Energy City in 1997 when the Minnesota Environmental Initiative chose it from over 30 other communities to act as a geographical focal point for the demonstration of efficient and renewable energy products, services, and technologies. Given this status, the city is continuously striving to act as a model for energy efficiency and create new and challenging energy saving goals.

The city’s Project Conserve program demonstrates Elk River’s commitment to this endeavor. Project Conserve is an outreach and education program that encourages participants to save money by conserving energy and making other lifestyle changes that lessen their environmental impacts. This unique program was supported by an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG), which Elk River received in 2009 through the U.S. Department of Energy as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Project Conserve has four phases. Phase I began as a pilot program which ran from the fall of 2008 to the summer of 2009. The pilot phase included 35 participants who were selected based on the following criteria: ability to receive e-mail, house size, family size, type of heating and cooling systems in the house, age of the home, and whether or not the potential recipient had access to recycling. For the pilot program, the program coordinators specifically targeted households that had the highest potential for energy savings in order to best demonstrate how much money a household can save when energy efficiency measures are implemented and carried out.

The pilot was structured on the basis of four large-group meetings. The first meeting provided participants with an introduction to the program followed by presentations focused on electricity savings. The second meeting focused on reducing the household’s heating and cooling load and the third meeting addressed opportunities for waste reduction, recycling, and water conservation. The fourth meeting concluded with an emphasis on sustainable transportation and organizers showcased the final results from the program.

As a key component of the first meeting, all participants were provided a free home energy audit, funded by Elk River Municipal Utilities and CenterPoint Energy. At first, program participants were apprehensive about having building inspectors perform the audit, often concerned that the program and audits would involve code enforcement. However, Program Director Rebecca Haug assured the households that inspectors were there solely for energy conservation. During the audits, the building inspectors and the utility workers asked the participants about their lifestyle activities and observed their energy use. The auditors gave advice about small behavioral and technological changes that could result in substantial savings when combined—changes such as weather stripping, changing filters, installing better insulation, and using power strips.

Residents gained valuable knowledge about ways to save energy and reduce their environmental impact. Rebecca Haug points to one particular audit as an example: “One woman had everything in her house connected to extension cords. As soon as she unplugged it all, her bill dropped immensely,” Haug stated. The energy audits not only helped households save money, but also gave residents important advice about household safety. Haug reported that many participating households had potentially life-threatening issues that likely would not have been resolved if not for the energy audits. Some examples included venting the furnace into the home rather than outdoors, not having sump baskets sealed, which allowed for radon to enter the home, and identifying high mold areas.

The following three meetings were mainly informational, and gave participants numerous resources and advice to save money on heating and cooling, garbage and recycling, water, and transportation. The water conservation component was especially compelling. Participants learned about low maintenance lawns and information about the Elk River Municipal Utilities rebate to install a smart irrigation system, which monitors the forecast using the internet and operates accordingly, automatically watering in times of need and withholding water when rain is predicted.

The goal for Phase I of Project Conserve was to save participants up to $500-$1,000 in one year. Haug reported that a lot of residents exceeded that goal in the first year. According to Project Conserve’s website, “in 2008-2009, savings averaged 11.7% for electricity, 11.5% for water, and 5% for heating. This averaged out to a $209 reduction in each homeowner’s energy costs for the year.”

Phase II and III followed the same structure as Phase I, but the program was made available to all the residents of Elk River. The program is scheduled to last five years, and anyone is welcome to join. With the energy audits, informational meetings, and the tracking of all the participants’ energy use, Project Conserve hopes to achieve the following reductions over five years:

  • Reduction in electric use by 20%
  • Reduction in water use by 25%
  • Reduction in home heating fuel by 10%
  • Reduction in garbage by 25%
  • Reduction of gasoline use by 25%

So far, participants have saved a lot of money through energy efficiency and conservation. Phase III is nearing its end and over 200 households are now involved in the program. Rebecca Haug has big plans for Phase IV, which will focus on low-income households. The entire process will be streamlined and tailored for more hands-on assistance. The EECBG funds that supported Project Conserve are no longer available, but the city of Elk River will continue to seek ways to support the program, which has been tremendously successful at decreasing the city’s overall energy load and getting residents excited about energy efficiency.

Project Profile

  • Location: City of Elk River, Sherburne County
  • Funding: $50,000 EECBG grant; rebates from Elk River Municipal Utility and CenterPoint Energy
  • Type of Technology: Energy efficiency: community education and outreach
  • Energy and Cost Savings: Average of $209 per individual household per year
  • Community Benefits: This program is focused on community engagement through education and outreach about energy efficiency. It helps households save money and also has other potential benefits such as improved safety and comfort.

For more information, contact Rebecca Haug, Environmental Administrator at the City of Elk River, at rhaug@ci.elk-river.mn.us or 763-635-1068.

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