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Sustainability support: $500,000 grant to help with energy-saving home improvements

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Sustainability support: $500,000 grant to help with energy-saving home improvements

AmeriCorps program participant Eric Fiatti (left) pulls down the attic stairs to show Mayor Joe Riley the insulated attic box that was built around the entrance to make the downtown home more energy-efficient. Charleston was awarded $500,000 in grant fund

Retired and living on a limited income, Dorothy Kelly was paying an astounding $300 a month to heat and cool her small one-story home in Charleston.

She was, until a team from The Sustainability Institute of South Carolina came to call.

Kelly's 1,100-square-foot home was tested for energy efficiency, the insulation was upgraded, leaks were sealed, a cap was built for her attic entrance and her HVAC system was repaired. The result is expected to slash Kelly's utility bills by about 40 percent, saving her about $1,500 a year.

"I can tell the difference," Kelly said, as reporters and city officials toured her home Wednesday. "Those days when it was cool, I didn't have to run the heat so much."

The work on Kelly's home, worth several thousand dollars, was funded by the federal AmeriCorps program and the city at no cost to her. It's an initiative that will help dozens of families, but the city has a much more ambitious goal.

Charleston has been working to create a loan program that could help all city residents make energy-saving improvements, and a $500,000, three-year grant announced Wednesday by the Home Depot Foundation's Sustainable Cities Institute will boost that effort.

Charleston and Fayetteville, Ark., were the two national winners of the funding.

"This is a grant that was obviously very competitive, and we're so proud that Charleston is one of two cities selected in the United

States," Mayor Joe Riley said at Kelly's house.

Charleston and The Sustainability Institute will use the $500,000 over three years to research and develop plans for the best ways to improve building efficiency in this climate. A full-time local coordinator and technical assistance from outside experts will be provided by the Sustainable Cities Institute.

Here's the plan:

--The Sustainability Institute will conduct energy assessments on 200 homes in the city of different building types -- from affordable housing to historic homes -- to determine the most cost-effective ways to improve them. There's no cost to the property owner.

--The institute will retrofit 50 of the 200 homes, also at no cost to the owners, and work with nonprofit partners to find funding for work on the others.

--A specialized curriculum will be created to teach about energy-efficiency renovations to historic structures in hot, humid climates.

--The initiative will support an ongoing program to train at-risk young adults for energy- efficiency work.

At Kelly's house, the young men in the AmeriCorps program, who had received training and made the improvements to her house, were clearly proud of the work.

Most said they also have used what they've learned at home.

Eric Fiatti said he noticed a change in his utility bills after using inexpensive spray foam to seal air leaks at his home.

For the city and The Sustainability Institute, a long-term goal is to use the data from the planned energy assessments on 200 homes to help create the Charleston SAVES energy-efficiency loan program.

The city has been working to develop that program with consulting group Abundant Power. The loan program isn't available yet, but it's aimed at being a painless way for property owners to upgrade buildings, with loan payments tailored to the amount of money saved through energy efficiency.

"We're trying to develop something for the middle class," Sustainability Institute project manager Renee Patey said. "In part, that's the loan program, and the education needed to get middle-class families into the mix."

Programs already exist to help low-income families make energy-saving improvements, she said.

Energy programs

Utility providers across the Lowcountry offer a variety of programs designed to help their customers save money on energy costs.

The Berkeley Electric Cooperative, for example, offers: an energy advance loan program that provides cash customers can borrow to make improvements; the H2O Advantage program to help members lower the cost of replacing or installing new electric water heaters; home inspections aimed at energy efficiency through the Good Cents/Touchstone Energy Home program; and Earth Connect, a rebate program for efficient heating systems.

Go to postandcourier.com for a listing of contact information for local providers or call the customer service line printed on your monthly statements.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.

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