By Frank Etheridge Back in town from Texas to check on friends, family and her destroyed lakefront home, Claire Foster Burnett hit the brakes when she noticed a crowd as she drove past Ashe Cultural Arts Center two weekends ago.
"When there's a bunch of cars parked at Ashe, I park too, because I know something good is going on," says Burnett, a retired Orleans Parish schoolteacher and artist.
Strolling through a series of demonstrations, lectures and information booths inside Ashe and other arts and community centers clustered in the 1700 block of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Burnett and hundreds of others attended the first-ever Build Smart Expo. Organized by a coalition of local businesses and environmental groups, and featuring ideas and information from a variety of government and industry figures, the Build Smart Expo strived to show New Orleanians facing the massive task of reconstructing their homes various ways to rebuild safer and stronger. The expo showcased materials and methods that not only could help save the environment, but also save the homeowner money on utility bills. Federal and state tax incentives for investment in energy efficiency, plus new building codes that will force contractors and homeowners to look at home construction in new ways will propel the new ideas, housing experts say. But educating the public about homebuilding options and changing the way business is done in Louisiana remain huge challenges to implementing "green" building on a large scale.
Locally, the Utility, Cable and Telecommunications Committee of the New Orleans City Council was on the verge of implementing the city's highly touted and years-in-the-making New Orleans Energy Efficiency Program (NOEEP) immediately prior to Katrina. But like all aspects of life in the city, that has changed. Plans for a city-sponsored push for greater energy efficiency are still supported by the council, but higher priorities must be addressed first, council sources say.
"Right now, we are living in the first time period in which a major American city is being rebuilt," says Micah Walker-Parkin, program director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy. "We're trying with this expo to get the word out to people that there are ways to reconstruct a healthy home that lasts longer. Ways that not only reduce greenhouse gases, but utility bills as well."
"We, more than anybody, know the dangers of global warming," says Leslie March, director of the local Sierra Club chapter, referring to increased sea levels and hurricane frequency and strength as a result of higher temperatures. "And in New Orleans right now, we have the chance to fight this problem on a house-by-house approach."
During the two-day event, workshops provided advice on tax incentives for purchasing energy-efficient appliances and construction materials, remediation of mold and contaminated soil, geo-thermal heat pumps, salvaging flooded tools and working with contractors.
Services and products in tune with the ideals of the Build Smart Expo were highlighted in booths lining the various venues hosting the event. Harvey-based Conservation Technologies showcased efficient designs of vinyl windows and compact fluorescent light bulbs. The Marigny-based Green Project detailed its free service of "deconstruction," described as an alternative to demolition that salvages and ultimately recycles housing materials rather than disposing of them. NOLA Rising Construction Services revealed its patent-pending "passive thermal engine technology," which can give new homes "off-the-grid," independent energy and water sources (an advantage Katrina dramatically revealed), along with hurricane- and flood-resistant construction materials and designs. Another NOLA Rising technology pumps silt underneath a home, causing it to rise gradually, thereby allowing homeowners to raise a house above flood levels.
"We're here to provide to the local public information on what is available to them as they begin to rebuild their houses," March says. "We aim to educate the homeowner as well as the contractor. People are interested. They're here to learn."
After returning to the Dallas suburbs armed with new ideas about how she and her husband can rebuild their house, Foster Burnett says she appreciates the advice offered at the expo.
"It was excellent," she says. "The information was really helpful. The ideas are just so different from how things used to be in the city. But right now, with the energy crisis and the constant hurricane threat, we don't have a choice at this point. We're going to have to rebuild, and build it right this time."
"WE WERE TOTALLY SWAMPED WITH people and questions the whole weekend," Buddy Justice, environmental consultant with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), says of his booth at the Build Smart Expo.
The DNR booth featured a solar panel, with Justice on hand to explain its benefits in terms of both an individual home's energy efficiency -- the panels can heat water and generate electricity -- and the global environment in using a natural, sustainable energy source.
"But have you ever seen one of these things around town?" Justice asks, pointing to the solar panel and not needing an answer.
While Justice says that demand for solar panels has increased sharply in Japan, Europe and California in recent years, Louisiana lags far behind. "Frankly, these panels are still just too costly for most people to afford," he says. "And even if you can afford it -- these systems can run from $30,000 to $70,000 -- they're hard to come by. The waiting list for solar panels can be as long as two years. But, as energy rates continue to go up, [solar energy panels] are going to be more and more attractive to the typical homeowner."
Justice and others at the expo point out a number of government tax incentives that will perhaps cause further interest in converting homes on an energy-efficient model. Tax breaks for investments on items such as solar panels were included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year. For example, tax credits provide a 30 percent rebate on the total cost of buying and installing solar panels. The tax incentives extend to windows, roofing, insulation and heating and cooling systems. (To see a full list of what items are eligible, plus details about each incentive, visit www.energy.gov/taxbreaks.htm.)
The federal government has further encouraged such eco-friendly investments by supporting Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs), loans that allow the up-front costs of upgrading an existing home or expenses incurred in new construction focused on energy efficiency to be paid over the course of a low-interest, long-term mortgage. While the program started with federal agencies such as Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a number of private, nationwide and local mortgage companies have started offering EEMs.
On a state level, the Louisiana Public Service Commission recently approved the idea of net metering, which directly rewards homeowners for investing in solar panels and other alternative energy sources. With net metering, when a home is generating its own power -- i.e., the solar panel when the sun is shining -- the meter on the house runs backwards. Net metering thus brings market-rate reductions from the power bill for the power a home generates on its own. Justice adds that the state is in the process of developing its own program of tax incentives and low-interest loans for energy-efficient investments.
Another huge advantage to solar panels is to have a reserve of power and water when local utilities are not in service, such as the days and weeks -- and in some neighborhoods, months -- after Katrina.
The New Orleans City Council sought to develop its own set of incentives with NOEEP. The city's energy efficiency program would have complemented state and federal efforts to promote energy efficiency, with programs ranging from weather-stripping older houses to make them more efficient, to providing home-energy audits to educate a resident on how to refit their homes toward better efficiency, to programs to educate the general public, businesses and builders on what incentives are available to them.
"NOEEP was a cutting-edge, progressive program where New Orleans was way ahead of the curve in terms of what energy-efficient programs were being offered," says Mike Sherman, an attorney advising the City Council's utilities committee while also serving as Council President Eddie Sapir's chief of staff. "Not only was it going to save energy, but it was going to save everybody money."
Funding for NOEEP was to come from a charge added to Entergy New Orleans customers' bills. Sherman says the charge would have added $1 a month to the typical bill, with NOEEP estimated to operate with an annual budget of around $5 million. But, in the months following Katrina, with Entergy facing bankruptcy, a battered system, a lack of ratepayers and no revenue to fund the ambitious program, NOEEP was placed on the back burner.
"We had people screaming that they needed their power and gas turned back on," says Clint Vince, the council's chief legal adviser on utility regulatory matters. "We didn't have people screaming that they needed an energy-efficiency program. Rebuilding the system has to be our highest priority."
The Alliance for Affordable Energy contests the notion that NOEEP had to be delayed because of Katrina.
"The argument doesn't make sense that because of a smaller ratepayer base you don't have the funding for the program, because doesn't that mean you're funding a smaller program?" Walker-Parkin of the Alliance for Affordable Energy asks. "Plus, the time was right. People were making changes to their house already with repairs. Why not encourage, with financial incentives, that the work they already have to do should be energy efficient? People's appliances were ruined, so they had to buy new ones. Why not reward them for purchasing energy-efficient appliances? We really missed a great opportunity with this."
She adds that roughly $6 million that was won in a 2002 lawsuit against Entergy New Orleans for overcharging customers could have been used to start NOEEP -- but was instead used to cover Entergy's "uncollectibles" in the months after Katrina.
"That's our money, the ratepayers' money," Walker-Parkin says. "It should have gone back to us, not back to the company."
Walker-Parkin's comments about the money's allocation "are almost completely true," Vince says. He notes that the allocation of the $6 million back to the utility still means a dollar-for-dollar reduction in what customers have to pay, as the deficit caused by uncollectibles is ultimately paid for by customers as part of the company's rate base.
Vince says the city's focus now is to enforce a resolution calling for greater energy efficiency in the construction of new buildings and homes. "We'd love to offer people a rebate on energy-efficient investments, but there just isn't money for that right now," he says.
Vince adds that the city may better understand what type of energy-efficiency program it can offer after post-Katrina Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) are announced, perhaps by mid-summer. The federal government provided New York City's utilities $750 million to recover from 9/11, Vince says. Though the White House has been reluctant to do the same for Entergy New Orleans, Vince hopes Congress will allocate $300 million to $400 million for repairs to the utility's infrastructure via CDBG funds.
"We want an energy-efficiency program in this city, and we'll have one as soon as we can afford it," Vince says.
"The City Council remains committed to energy efficiency," Councilman Eddie Sapir, chair of the utilities committee, echoed in a statement to Gambit Weekly. "Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina blew away NOEEP as we knew it by destroying most of the homes it was designed to retrofit, the program's funding source, and most of the assumptions behind its design."
GIVEN THE POSITIVE, GLASS-IS-HALF-FULL outlook that many New Orleanians hope to maintain in the wake of Katrina, housing and environmental advocates say the time is right for big changes in the ways that citizens protect themselves from the winds and floods of hurricanes while reducing utility bills and greenhouse gas emissions.
In the special legislative session held last fall, and in response to Katrina, Louisiana legislators finally adopted the International Building Code, which will require new buildings and houses to be elevated 3 feet above a flood hazard and to withstand 130-mph winds, a 10-mph improvement over existing regulations.
While that represents a big step forward, environmental advocates insist that Louisiana's problems require a more complex response than just improved resistance to storm winds.
The LSU AgCenter, located in a corner of the university's Baton Rouge campus, features an energy-efficient model home that individual homeowners who are rebuilding can emulate post-Katrina. Dubbed LaHouse, the model home is intended "to stimulate consumer demand and industry adoption of high-performance housing and landscape," according to Sandy Scallan, education and outreach director for the project. The house, which is now open for public tours, is designed with energy efficiency and hurricanes in mind.
A team of scientists and engineers designed LaHouse to showcase ways of maximizing energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management, pollution prevention and storm water management -- all while using environmentally responsible materials. (For more information on the house, visit www.louisianahouse.org.) "People are excited," Scallan says. "They need to know what the new codes will make them do and what's available to them to meet the requirements."
Despite enthusiasm among promoters of LaHouse and environmentalists, some in the housing industry are skeptical that even a disaster on the scale of Katrina will inspire significant change.
"We have a tremendous opportunity to develop alternative methods of construction right now, simply because there is so much construction going on in New Orleans," says Jim Payne, a contractor with a degree in environmental studies.
For more than 20 years, Payne has built homes in the metro area with a structural base of polystyrene, the material found in most coffee mugs. Polystyrene's properties include water resistance, durability in high winds and energy efficiency by virtue of a tight seal that holds in hot and cold air. The material also allows for quick construction, which is crucial in a city struggling with a massive housing shortage. A model house constructed of polystyrene, using a method that allows for anything from brick to stucco to be applied as walls, was on display at the Build Smart Expo.
"You can build one of these houses with one contractor and four to five low-skilled laborers in just a few days," Payne says. "The storm has given us a real opportunity. We could be the headquarters of this industry, which will boom in the Gulf South in the next few years because of the constant hurricane threat. We're behind the eight ball right now, but we're also in a position to be the national leaders in this."
- "Right now, we are living in the first time period in which a major American city is being rebuilt," says Micah Walker- Parkin, program director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy.