What’s the real price of energy efficiency?


Mississippi homeowners who are thinking about becoming seriously energy efficient now have one good estimate on how much that might cost: $15,000.

That’s how much a Columbus woman spent on her home for it to earn a rare perfect-10 rating from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s e-Score evaluation, which is a program that measures residential energy efficiency.

Jamie Alford’s central air conditioner had been giving her problems for three years, to the point that she had installed a bunch of window units to compensate.

Her monthly electric bill had averaged $300, but with all the home improvements it’s now below $150.

The work sounds like pretty traditional stuff. Alford installed an automated central-air unit that adjusts temperatures when people are in the house. She added a new water heater and new doors and windows. She insulated her attic and switched all her lighting to LED bulbs.

Her perfect-10 is pretty rare in the seven states where the TVA provides electricity. Nearly 75,000 homes have received an eScore assessment, and Alford’s is only the fifth one to get a 10.

Her rural cooperative, 4-County Electric Power Association, has made 751 such assessments. The average score is 6.5, including 5 homes with a 9 rating and 81 with an 8. Alford is her co-op’s first 10.

4-County’s average score indicates that plenty of homes around Columbus and Starkville can be more energy efficient.

But another number explains why this isn’t happening more often: It’s the $15,000 Alford spent to upgrade a home that’s only 35 years old.

It’s difficult for most families, even in the best of times, to make such an investment. As Alford’s experience shows, the payoff can take years.

If she’s saving $160 on her monthly electric bill, it will take 94 months — which is almost eight years — to save the $15,000 she spent on the upgrades. Even if you increase the monthly savings to $200, it still takes more than six years to break even.

Given that this involves a home built in the 1980s, it’s pretty easy to see how the cost could rise well above $15,000 if an older home is involved. That makes expensive renovations like this even harder to justify.

What would be truly interesting is to compare these upgrade costs with the expense of installing a bunch of rooftop solar panels, which would allow a home to generate most of its own electricity.

Only a few years ago, the price of solar panels were out of the reach of most homeowners, but it keeps coming down and is much more affordable today.

Solar power is not a perfect solution to energy efficiency, since the sun doesn’t shine all the time. But given Mississippi’s regular, predictable sunny weather, the state is a fine place for residential solar installations.

We remain way behind in solar power. California, for example, gets 17 percent of its electricity from the sun. Mississippi gets just one-half of 1 percent.

This is bound to change as energy efficiency becomes more valuable.