11/23/2011 12:17 pm ET

How a Wicked Smart City Is About to Throw $25 Million Out the Window

Hey Newtonites. You home for Thanksgiving? Hosting the festivities? Or, for my generation, staying at your parents' house? It's cold today, isn't it?

What would you say if I told you that almost every person you know who owns a home in Newton was about to pay up to $1,500 more than they need to in energy bills this year -- much of it in the coming four months? Or that they could get $3,000 in energy services for an investment of about three hours and less than $1,000? Or that each of them pays money out of their utility bill every month for an energy efficiency service they are not using?

In a recent lecture at MIT's Stata Center, energy expert Michael Blasnik laid out findings from his research on the National Weatherization Assistance Program -- and they should be of interest to every utility bill payer in the country who likes money.

According to Blasnik, homeowners can save thousands a year by first conducting a free home energy audit and then taking five simple steps:

  • Insulate attics (save up to $500 per year)
  • Insulate walls (save up to $400 per year)
  • Air Seal the house (save up to $250 per year)
  • Replace 15 bulbs with CFLs (save up to $150 per year)
  • Lower thermostat two degrees (save up to $100 per year)

According to Blasnik's findings, these five simple steps can save up to $1,500 a year, but also cost, on average, upwards of $3,000. But, what if I told you that here in Massachusetts, thanks to utility programs, the package will likely cost less than $1,000?

And who is paying the difference, you may ask? Well, the truth is, if you live in Massachusetts, you are paying some of it. When you get your next utility bill, take a look at the fine print on the back of the first page. Your "minimum charge" includes, and I quote, "the customers' contribution to the Energy Audit Program." You are paying for it, so why not use it?

Now, I am not a Newton homeowner. I wish. I actually rent in Boston -- unable to afford to buy a home anywhere at this point with a job in the non-profit sector and a two-year-old. But ever since my daughter started daycare in Newton, I have been platooning at my mom's house -- in the basement where my friends and I used to freeze our butts off every winter around this time of year. So I convinced her to get her home done. My grandmother, cousin, neighbors and friends are Newton residents too and many of them have decided to weatherize and may now be on their way to saving hundreds, if not thousands of dollars this winter.

Amazingly, if the owners of the more than 18,000 single detached homes in Newton did the same, Newton's 85,000 residents could save upwards of $25 million a year.

If all of this is not enough to make the case for weatherizing, this project has a bigger picture goal too. Forty percent of Newton's carbon emissions come from keeping our homes, food, and water warm or cold and our lights and TVs on. So, if, in addition to liking money, you are troubled by the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, the increasingly visible costs of digging up, shipping, processing, delivering and burning coal, oil, and natural gas, and/or the potential risks associated with climate change, there is one simple solution to knock out a chunk of Newton's contribution: weatherize your home.

I am working with local non-profit, Green Decade, and their innovative Eco Project. According to Director Jay Walter:

"Newton is an older community that is, for all practical purposes, built-out. If we, as a community, are to become more sustainable, we need to address our older housing stock. I believe encouraging residents to take advantage of the utility's Mass Save incentive program is the most cost effective and efficient way to make our homes more energy efficient."

We are hoping to audit 300 homes and weatherize 150 of them by January 31. If you or someone you know might like to be one of those homes, let me know. Or to just sign up for a free energy audit online.

And have a warm and happy Thanksgiving!