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Clean power and energy efficiency for all Md. residents [Commentary]

Environmental ScienceLaws and LegislationEnergy SavingEnvironmental PollutionPersonal Income

As Maryland considers options for cutting climate-warming emissions from existing power plants, the good news is we're already ahead of most other states in meeting new targets proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But let's not rest on our laurels. Thanks to energy efficiency programs being developed in the coming months, we can deliver energy savings to more Marylanders, benefiting all our families and communities.

Now is the time to contact Gov. Martin O'Malley to remind him how important it is to ramp up work by our utilities and state agencies to deliver energy efficiency, which reduces the need to generate electricity with fuels that create the carbon pollution that harms our health and planet. Our state must invest more money, and do so more effectively, especially in our housing stock. Not only will that protect our cherished Chesapeake Bay by reducing pollution, it will benefit households struggling to pay energy bills by investing in safer, greener and healthier homes.

We see firsthand just how dramatically lives are transformed when families don't have to cope with asthma attacks or discomfort caused by housing in serious disrepair. Kids enjoy better health and safety, and everyone in the neighborhood benefits. Homes in poor condition also waste a lot of energy. Energy costs hit Marylanders of modest means especially hard. While those of average income pay about 4 percent of their budgets for electricity, heating and cooling, low-income Marylanders can pay five times that much. In fact, per square foot, people living in rented multifamily housing have utility bills that are a whopping 38 percent higher than those in owner-occupied, single-family detached homes.

When homes are upgraded with measures like better insulation and improved lighting, there are measurable improvements in health, safety and comfort. Achieving such results is the mission of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), and helping families reach their full potential is at the heart of the organization's work.

Take Alicia's story out of Baltimore's Reservoir Hill neighborhood.

A single mom who shares a three-bedroom apartment with her 6-year-old daughter, Alicia lives in a building constructed in 1900. Like so many aging housing units, it is uncomfortably warm in the summer and cold in the winter. Making matters worse, Alicia's daughter suffers from asthma, a chronic condition exacerbated by extreme heat and cold. Alicia learned about GHHI's home intervention services from her landlord and discovered that she met U.S. Department of Energy eligibility requirements for a complete package of weatherization retrofits. Within a few weeks a GHHI crew fixed her air conditioner, insulated the attic and installed weather stripping, low-flow faucet aerators and a programmable thermostat. Now, Alicia reports, she and her daughter are comfortable on hot days and "barely have to turn on the heat in the winter"— which means decreased anxiety about triggering asthma attacks as well as real savings to her fixed monthly budget.

Alicia's story illustrates why it's so important for Maryland to take our energy efficiency investments to the next level.

How do we deliver benefits to all Marylanders? Under the EPA proposal, states will have the flexibility to decide how to lower carbon pollution. Maryland has a leg up as one of 27 states with established energy efficiency goals. EmPOWER Maryland is the program driving these investments to optimize our energy use, and it's about to be updated by our state agencies and energy utilities.

And recently, low-income property energy-saving improvements have hit their stride through our Multifamily Energy Efficiency and Housing Affordability program directed by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Of the more than 500,000 multi-family residences in our state, more than half are considered affordable units. Boosting their energy efficiency will tap potential in an often-overlooked housing segment, reducing consumer energy bills and carbon pollution and therefore benefiting us all.

Businesses and homeowners have done a great job at advancing energy efficiency of our buildings so far, as have state agencies and utilities. We urge Marylanders to contact Governor O'Malley before the EPA's comment period on the proposed Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution closes in mid-October and remind him that state agencies and energy utilities can and must deliver more energy efficiency and the associated health, safety and comfort benefits to all residents. This includes ramping up investment in the homes of Marylanders whose budgets really feel the pinch of high energy costs. Efficiency will lower our bills, and for the sake of our state's future, it's time to provide efficiency for all.

Ruth Ann Norton is president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative; her email is ranorton@ghhi.org. Deron Lovaas is director of state and federal policy and practice for the Urban Solutions Group of the Natural Resources Defense Council; his email is dlovaas@nrdc.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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