Rebates offered if homeowners spend extra on utilities

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Peter Brown, Earth Advantage Institute director of residential services, uses a blower door to  measure air leakage in a new Bull Mountain house. The nonprofit is so sure of its energy projections that its guaranteeing utility bills wont top estimates. Would you like someone to guarantee how much the energy in your home will cost — and pay you the difference if it turns out to be higher?

Of course you would. And now you can.

But like all things that sound too good to be true, there are a few catches.

First, it has to be a new home built to certain standards by certain builders.

Second, you have to agree to a few conditions, including how many people will live in the home.

And third, the guarantee will cost you a $1 consideration, which activates the agreement.

But if you qualify under those terms, you can stop worrying whether a hot summer or a cold winter will send your energy bills spiraling out of control. If your annual bill is more than promised, you’ll get the difference back for three years.

That’s the concept behind the Energy Bill Guarantee Program administered by the Earth Advantage Institute, a Portland nonprofit that works to increase building energy efficiency.

“Nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to buildings. If we can reduce them, we can go a long ways towards reducing climate change,” says Peter Brown, director of residential services at Earth Advantage Institute.

The nonprofit operates several programs aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of residential buildings, including new and existing single-family homes and multifamily homes. Most involve research and education to increase construction standards.

One of its signature programs is called Earth Advantage New Homes, which uses third-party inspectors to ensure new homes are constructed to energy-efficient standards.

The standards were developed in cooperation with the Energy Trust of Oregon. They include such things as high insulation levels in ceilings, walls and floors, more efficient windows, lighting and furnaces, and tankless water heaters. New homes that meet these standards are certified as Earth Advantage Homes. Brown says over 13,700 homes have received this certification in Oregon over the past 13 years.

The new Energy Bill Guarantee Program is the Earth Advantage Institute putting its money where its mouth is.

It is confident that if new homes are constructed to its standards, an Energy Performance Score can determine how much energy the home will use on an annual basis. For example, the average predicted energy use for a 3,234-square-foot Earth Advantage home in Lake Oswego is $121 a month — $72 for electricity and $49 for natural gas. If the owner of that home spends more than $1,451 a year for energy, the Earth Advantage Institute believes it should pay the difference.

So far, five builders in the Portland area have signed onto the program. They include Stone Bridge Homes Northwest, Vintage Homes Northwest, Tasso Custom Homes, Greenwood Homes, and Four Square Design/Build. The largest one is Stone Bridge, which is building around 100 homes a year.

So how is the program working in the real world?

It’s too soon to tell, Brown says. Because it just started last November, a full year has not yet gone by for any of the homeowners. But the Earth Advantage Institute expects to sign contracts with around 150 homeowners within the first year of the program, and that number could increase significantly if the economy continues to improve and homebuilding continues to recover.

“We are confident Earth Advantage standards result in better buildings, not just more energy efficient but healthier to live in. We are looking forward to seeing if anyone paid more than expected by the end of this year,” Brown says.

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