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Improving Energy Efficiency, One House and One Business at a Time

Courtesy photo

When it comes to energy hogs and inefficiency, ice rinks rank among the worst. But not the new one in Falmouth. Not only is this eco-friendly ice arena making its own electricity, it's using that electricity as efficiently as any building of its kind in the world.

"You don't see a lot of rinks like this, obviously," said Paul Moore of Falmouth Youth Hockey. "And rinks are utility monsters, they eat up a lot, a lot of electricity."

Moore of Falmouth spearheaded the construction of the nearly six million dollar Falmouth Ice Arena.
"When we started building the rink, we knew we wanted to be good stewards of the environment, and we weren't sure how we were going to do that," he said. "The biggest thing we were doing, when we built the rink, the roof system, the wall system, the insulation, the heat recovery system we have in this rink, have nothing to do with the solar. The solar piece came in and here we are."

That solar piece came in big.

Mooney is standing in a utility room he calls the “command central." There's a slight hum in here. That's because this is where all the electricity from 3,300 solar panels passes through as it is dispatched around the building. Those panels are both on the roof and atop two enormous carports in the parking lot.

"Most of the people think they are canopies to park your car under. 'Oh, that's great, you can keep your car under.' Then you tell them it's solar panels and they can't believe it," he said.

Credit Photo by Sean Corcoran
The state has dedicate $2 billion for conservation and energy efficiency programs. Much of the anticipated energy savings is expected to come from efficiency improvements to residential homes.

Massachusetts is considered the best state in the nation when it comes to energy efficiency, and this two-year old rink is a good example why. Because of things like a special ceiling that reduces radiant heat, high-efficiency lighting, and walls of 3-and-a-half-inch thick foam insulated panels - the rink saves as much as $85,000 a year in energy costs. When combined with the solar panels, it's a net-zero building. Meaning, it produces as much energy as it uses.
"It all ties in together because the rink is so tight," Moore said.

The arena received more than $240,000 in financial incentives and rebates for its efficiency work. The money came from the Cape Light Compact, which administers efficiency programs on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. The CLC does what NStar does on the South Coast and National Grid does in Boston — it takes fees from rate payers and puts them towards all types of conservation efforts.

"We got rebates, we got credits for that the way we built it," Moore said. "It cost us a little more money, but we knew, that when you built a rink, all you're really building is a huge refrigerator. And if you don't do the envelope the right way, it's just goes out - it goes out of your building."

The 2008 Green Communities Act brought sweeping changes to energy efficiency regulations. The state dedicated $2 billion to conservation programs of all sorts, and it put the CLC and 13 different electric and gas utilities in charge of running those programs. Next year, the state expects to save just more than 2-and-a-half percent in electricity usage on efficiency alone.

“We've been operating energy efficiency in Massachusetts for well over 25 years," said Maggie Downey, the administrator of the CLC. She said the Compact has seen spending on efficiency programs jump from about $4.5 million dollars annually before the Green Communities Act, to about $26 million a year now.

Some of the money goes into commercial buildings like the Falmouth Ice Arena. But the state's efficiency goals also are deeply invested in the residential sector, going house to house, offering free foam sealant and jaw-dropping discounts on insulation.

“Everyone is entitled to a free home energy audit if you are a residential customer, once a year," she said.

They’ll replace your incandescent lightbulbs and give you a power strip for the entertainment center. No charge. They’ll also do what’s called a blower test.

Darren Duty and Josh Cataldo are doing such a test at Matthew Gould's house in Falmouth. Duty and Cataldo work for Rise Engineering, the firm hired by the CLC to perform home efficiency audits.

This is a good type of audit. They've gone through the building, noting the cracks in the foundation and the 4-inch hole in the chimney. Now, for the blower test, Cataldo has replaced Gould's front door and strapped on a fabric one that has a fan in its middle and a control panel.

Energy efficiency engineers perform a blower door test on a Falmouth home to determine how leaky the house is.

"It's a fan that we set up in your front doorway, and it sucks air out of your home," Duty said. "We'll be able to tell how leaky your house should be versus how leaky your house actually is."

Gould doesn’t have much hope. The house was built sometime in the late 1940s, he said, and it still has the same beautiful row of front windows. Single pane, of course.

“And I do know we don't have any insulation in the walls down here," he said, wondering aloud how much he might receive in incentives and rebates to mitigate efficiency costs like insulation.

Just to be sure Gould is correct that the outside walls are uninsulated, Cataldo finishes the blow test and goes out front with his razor blade. He’s removing a side shingle that he'll replace it when he’s done.

“I’m going to pull the shingle off," he said, "and I'm going to drill a small test hole in there and problem around to see if there is any insulation in there”

"And you're empty --  and you knew that!"

The news also isn't great from the blower test, which, as expected, found that the house is a little leaky.

"You have an 88 percent air exchange rate," Duty said. "So every hour, 88 percent of the air in your home leaves and new fresh air comes into your house. Where you want to be, the very leakiest you want to be is at a 35 percent air exchange rate. The very tightest you want to be is a 25 percent air exchange rate."

Duty said he thinks the house can get close to that 35 percent threshold. It's a $6,700 job, with the CLC paying for about $5,200 of it. They'll start with some well-placed foam sealant in the basement.

“We'll (also) do attic areas, plumbing electrical. Insulation itself doesn't stop air movement," he said. "The insulation allows air to move through it, so seal with the foam and then put insulation over it. Do it for free.”

It’s not really free. Rate payers are footing the bill for the sealant. And they’re funding up to $4,000 in rebates for other stuff — up to $150 on a new fridge. $200 back on a clothes dryer. And if you’d like a a new wi-fi thermostat, you can get a $100 rebate for that.

The benefits extend beyond the Gould house. One rebate, one home at a time, they're chipping away at the state's energy inefficiencies.

Listen to other stories in this series.