Home energy upgrades help Allentown residents to save money
Dozens of homeowners and businesses have benefited from low-interest loans, rebates.
Michelle Olson, of Allentown poses in her family's living room. Michelle and her husband David, not shown, recently converted from oil heat to gas heat in their home. (APRIL BARTHOLOMEW, THE MORNING CALL)
"And it kept going up," Michelle Olson said.
Olson threw a neighborhood party after she made the switch from home heating oil to natural gas, a move that has allowed her to keep more than $200 extra in her wallet every month.
"I'm being conservative," Olson said of her new estimated $120-per-month gas bill. "It could be less. Gas is so much more appealing. You can cook with gas, you can have your grill attached to gas. There are so many benefits."
The Olsons are among dozens of homeowners and business owners taking advantage of low-interest loans and rebates the city of Allentown has been offering for energy efficiency improvements.
The city received $1 million in stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy that is being used in part to offset the cost of those improvements. Officials say more than 40 homeowners and business operators have benefited from the program since it began in 2009.
And there are more to come. Tom Kerr, who oversees the city's Energy Conservation Program, said a little more than $100,000 is left for people looking to convert and upgrade heating and cooling systems or add windows or insulation.
That's in addition to the roughly $750,000 the city is spending to install "smart" lighting controls in city buildings and add solar-powered trash compactors on city streets, among other improvements.
"It's made the city operate more efficiently," Kerr said. "The solar compactors reduce trash truck traffic … everything we've done to make the infrastructure more efficient.
"Not everyone is a fan of the stimulus package, but I think we can say, from our standpoint, that a million dollars is being spent wisely."
The city set aside $140,000 from the $1 million grant for low-interest loans and grants to homeowners, commercial properties and nonprofits looking to upgrade heating and cooling equipment, lighting, insulation, windows and doors.
Allentown has invested $31,000 into upgrades at 30 residential properties, which are eligible for loans of up to $15,000. The state's Keystone Home Energy Loan Program typically offers loans with interest rates between 2.99 percent and 8.99 percent. Allentown used its grant funding to buy down those rates to offer rates as low as 0.99 percent to city residents.
The city's residential investment, thus far, has leveraged $98,000 worth of projects, Kerr said.
On the commercial side, the city has used $12,000 to leverage about $425,000 on three projects and has provided $39,000 worth of rebates to small commercial properties and nonprofits.
The Allentown residents and businesses are joining a growing number of people switching over to natural gas to lower their energy costs.
Bethlehem previously received $702,000 worth of the energy funding, although it did not use it to offer loans and rebates. It replaced furnaces at two fire stations, a boiler at a city building and a roof on the city library, according to Ralph Carp, the director of parks and public property. He said an estimated $508,000 was used to replace original windows at city hall.
Peter Krajsa, chief executive officer of Lower Macungie Township-based AFC First Financial, which administers Allentown's residential loan program and the state's Keystone Home Energy Loan program, said his company has issued 10,000 loans totaling about $80 million in financing across the state over the past four years.
Krajsa knows first-hand the benefits of the program. He had his 3,000-square-foot Lower Macungie home converted from electric heat to gas heat with the help of a $15,000 loan and 2.99 percent interest rate. Krajsa, who previously paid $500 per month for electric service, is now paying around $350 for electric and gas combined.
UGI, the gas utility serving the Lehigh Valley, said it had a record number of homes convert to gas heat last year.