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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    As part of an energy audit designed to help decide the best way to improve a building's efficiency, John Haithcock shows Charles Warrington an area where air leaks from the basement of his Nashua home. The audit took place Wednesday, June 8.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    The control unit for the blower
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    A special fan, combined with a monitoring and control unit, moves air through the house in the search for air leaks as part of a "blower test."
  • Staff photo byDon Himsel

    Charles Warrington, left, and John Haithcock
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    New Hampshire Better Buildings coordinated the energy audit at Charles Warrington's Nashua home.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    John Haithcock
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    John Haithcock
Monday, June 13, 2011

Cheap loans cry for cutting energy bills

David Brooks

Even the biggest Nashua booster has to admit that our sort-of-official nickname “Gate City” doesn’t really sing.

I always thought it sounds like something sold in the outdoors section of a hardware store, conveying all the personality of a doorway.

So how about this instead: “Waste-Not-Want-Not-’ville”?

OK, maybe that doesn’t sing either, except to folks who think “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is a great title.

But it carries a good message, which Bob Eldridge summarizes like this: “Wouldn’t you rather put money in your retirement fund or the kids’ college savings, rather than keep giving it to the utility company?”

Eldridge is spending a lot of time making pitches like this in his job as community manager for Better Buildings New Hampshire, a program that will spend the next two years trying to get Nashuans to use a lot less energy when heating, lighting and operating in homes and offices and factories.

The idea isn’t to make Nashua “green,” a trendy term that Better Buildings avoids like the plague, but to help make Nashua smarter, because wasting energy is dumb.

“We’re pushing the financial benefit, making the home more comfortable,” said Kevin Flynn of the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, which is involved with Better Buildings. “The environmental angle is fine, but it isn’t the focus.”

A big part of the program are energy-efficiency loans at a rate of just 1 percent. They’re possible because Better Buildings “buys down” the interest rate by paying part of it, and also offers a partial loan-loss guarantee that makes banks more comfortable with offering the service.

So far, Merrimack County Savings Bank is the other institution that has signed up to offer the loans. Art Letendre, vice president and consumer loan manager for the bank, says the institution jumped at the chance at the low-interest loans – their current home-improve rate is 8.9 percent – because lending money for energy efficiency is a tough sell.

“Trying to generate loan volume on energy-related matters is very, very difficult. I know other banks that have energy loan programs developed on their own that they get little to no takers,” he said. “We had talked about doing it on our own, at 5 percent or whatever reduced rate, but always decided it’s more work than it’s worth.

“People say they’d be interested in doing it ... but to get them to actually spend the money is harder,” he said.

The bank is still putting together material to offer the loans. Better Building’s overall goal is to get 300 folks upgraded; if Merrimack County Savings Bank handles even a quarter of that many loans, Letendre said, it would be ecstatic.

There’s no income limit on the loans, but they do carry some unusual caveats. The proposed work, such as insulation, furnace upgrades or windows, must meet efficiency standards – you can’t just use this cheap loan for a new stove. Further, borrowers must let Better Buildings look at 12 months of utility bills, then let them see similar bills for 12 months after the work is done, to judge real-world effectiveness.

This loan is only available for homeowners. A different inexpensive loan program is being established for small businesses.

Establishing these loans is only part of the job, says Eldridge. A bigger deal is educating people so they know whether, and how, to cut their energy use, starting with energy audits of their home.

“We want to get people motivated to do something, and walk them through the process,” he said. “Where do you get started? Who do you call? Who do you trust?”

Better Buildings was created out of a $10 million federal grant that seeks to increase energy efficiency by focusing on specific communities.

In New Hampshire, those communities are Nashua, Berlin (which, by the way, has a cool nickname: “The City That Trees Built”), and Plymouth (lame nickname: “Gateway to the White Mountains”).

“We hope that by dealing with specific areas, people will get together, share ideas and make this more mainstream,” said Katherine Peters, Better Buildings program director with New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, which is handling the finances.

Better Buildings has established offices in each of these three cities – they’re upstairs in the old Nashua Telegraph building on Main Street – and will operate at least until the grant runs out in mid-2013.

Eldridge is rolling out a series of public meetings, including a Wednesday, June 22, forum to present a “roadmap” about how Nashua will reduce its overall energy usage and will be waving the efficiency-is-good flag for all he’s worth.

“We want to give them a bug, a virus, about doing this.”

Waste not, want not!

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or