Monday, March 1, 2010

You SURE you want those energy-saving government subsidies?

There's nothing like getting into the middle of a great idea for seeing its pitfalls. Case in point: government subsidies for energy-saving home renovations. I've spent the last month or so wrestling with two different subsidy programs, and I've spent more of that time than I'd like wondering why on earth I'm even bothering.

The bigger of the two, Home Performance with ENERGY STAR, sounds terrific. Who could quarrel with a rebate of up to 20% for energy-saving steps like new heating, insulation, and energy-star appliances?

I could. And here's why. To get this rebate, you need to get an energy audit from a contractor approved by NYSERDA, New York's Energy Research and Development Authority. The contractor then gives you a fancy illustrated list of recommended changes, with their cost and an estimate of how much you'll save. Once you and NYSERDA agree to them, that contractor does the work.

Ours were estimated to cost us $20,000 and save us about $1000 a year. To begin with, this is not a breathtaking payback; we went ahead largely because we plan to rent out 3/4 of our house and the changes would definitely make it more rentable.

But there's a bigger problem. $20,000 is a lot of money. In the real, responsible-consumer world, you'd want to get a second and maybe even a third estimate on that amount of work. But in NYSERDA-land, that would mean getting - and paying for - one or two additional energy audits.

That's if you can even find another contractor or two to do them; the long list of NYSERDA-certified contractors on the agency's website is, I discovered, very out of date, and many of those I called never bothered to call me back. And NYSERDA-certified contractors don't come cheap. When we called the only NYSERDA-certified heating contractor we could find, for an estimate on a new boiler, he wanted more than twice what a non-NYSERDA contractor would charge.

So here's what NYSERDA doesn't tell you: Participants in this program are effectively, if not officially, stuck with the first contractor they call and have no control over the prices they're charged. And now that we're moving into the non-NYSERDA parts of the job - things like painting and electrical work - and I am able to get competing estimates, I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm getting such a good deal after all. If I can get the place painted for about 2/3 of what the NYSERDA contractor would charge - and I can - how much good is that 20% rebate on the NYSERDA work actually doing me?

Then there's the Great Appliance Swap-out, New York's version of the much touted cash-for-
clunkers appliance program. For reasons known only to bureaucrats, the state gives you two options. You can replace freezers, clothes washers and refrigerators, individually or together, with any old Energy Star model, and get a roughly $100 rebate for each. Or, you can get the super-high-efficiency bundle and get a $500 rebate for three appliances. ($555 if you can prove you've recycled the old ones). The problem is that in that case you must buy a clothes washer and a dishwasher and a refrigerator but not a freezer. And all three must have high ratings from the Consortium for Energy Efficiency. What's CEE, and why are its ratings better? I had no idea - and when I went hunting for appliances, neither did the salesmen.

Between CEE's exoticism and the whole program's rigidity, it's no surprise that the demand for these rebates has been less than overwhelming. Originally supposed to last only a week, the program's now going to run till the money's used up. Which may be a while - after more than two weeks, the $16.8 million program still has about $8.8 million to give away.

$500 of that is coming to us. (Sending the appliances to a recycler that wouldl give us an acceptable certificate would cost way more, in money and trouble, than the $55 we'd get for it, so we passed on that bit.) And there's another $4,000 or so coming once we're done with our retrofit.

But will we turn out to have actually saved money on either? Damned if I know.


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