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What are the most promising opportunities to promote greater residential energy efficiency? Is there a role for the federal government?

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By Sunia Zaterman

One of the most promising ways to reduce residential energy use is to make the nation’s public housing stock more energy efficient. Fortunately, housing authorities already have made great progress towards this goal. Housing authorities completed green retrofits for nearly 120,000 units during 2010 and 2011, making about 10 percent of the nation’s public housing stock more sustainable as well as reducing utility and water costs for residents and government.

Approximately half of those green retrofits were made possible through Recovery Act Capital Funds, demonstrating the payoff of increased investment in housing infrastructure. Some housing authorities are doing even more, incorporating solar and geothermal technologies into the redevelopment of public housing properties. For instance, the Denver Housing Authority is currently redeveloping a property in which solar and geothermal technology will generate up to 60 percent of the needed energy. Even with this progress towards greater sustainability, the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that, on average, buildings within the public housing stock could be 30 to 50 percent more efficient.

The federal government can speed progress towards this goal by making smart investments in energy-efficiency improvements that pay for themselves. At least $4.1 billion of the improvements included in the most current estimate of public housing’s capital needs would pay for themselves in fewer than 12 years through enhancing energy and water efficiency. When the payback period for improvements is extended to 20 years, approximately $6.4 billion in improvements pay for themselves in a similar fashion.

Despite the guaranteed cost-savings from such investments, funding for public housing’s capital needs continues to dwindle. An increase in the amount of capital funding would make a difference in reducing the utility costs of public housing, and is a concrete way the federal government can meet its goal of reducing energy use in the residential sector.

Sunia Zaterman is executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities

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