Harrisburg eyes new uses for unspent green building funds

Somewhere in Harrisburg is the rarest of phenomena: a government pot holding $24 million that has been relatively untouched for a half-dozen years.

Like other wonders, it is at risk of extinction.

The fund was created in 2008 with $25 million to support the construction of environmentally sustainable homes and workspaces. The goal was to enable families and small business owners to put up buildings that consume little energy, reduce waste and use environmentally preferable materials.

But in the last eight years, the High Performance Building program has received only four complete applications and awarded just three grants, totaling $175,000 for green construction and renovation projects in Allegheny, Lackawanna and Delaware counties.

Now, the governor and legislators are planning to put the money to other uses unrelated to energy-efficient buildings.

A budget-related bill that is on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk after the Republican-led House and Senate passed it last week will divert $12 million from the program to create a new natural gas infrastructure development fund to provide state grants to municipalities, hospitals, businesses and other groups that want to connect to natural gas pipelines.

Mr. Wolf, a Democrat, has a separate proposal in his 2016-17 budget plan that would take $24.5 million — all of the High Performance Building program’s remaining funds — and dedicate it to Business in Our Sites, a program that finances site development projects in communities so they are ready to host new or relocating businesses.

Jeffrey Sheridan, Mr. Wolf’s spokesman, said the High Performance Building funds were targeted for reallocation because the program “has seen little activity.”

“We believe the funding can be much better utilized in this manner,” he said.

No lack of demand

The recent history of green construction in Western Pennsylvania shows the funds were not left untouched because of a lack of demand.

There were 55 single-family home projects and 217 total projects certified to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards in this region alone between 2008 and today, according to figures from the South Side-based Green Building Alliance.

Other, concurrent high-performance building programs in the state have been successful, including one through the state’s Alternative and Clean Energy program that has awarded more than $42 million to 25 building projects, 22 of them at school districts, according to Heidi Havens, spokeswoman for the Department of Community and Economic Development.

The problem, the High Performance Building program’s supporters say, is its very narrow audience of likely applicants, its high compliance costs and its paperwork burden for homeowners and small businesses. Only homes that will be used as the applicant’s primary residence and buildings for businesses with 100 or fewer employees are eligible.

All of those obstacles are fixable in ways that would make the funds more accessible to building projects that still meet the program’s high performance standards, Aurora Sharrard, the Green Building Alliance’s executive director, said.

The alliance has been exploring a pitch to the state to expand the types of eligible applicants and buildings. But, Ms. Sharrard said, “I am concerned that time is running out.”

“If there were more use types that could access these funds they would have been spent out a long time ago,” she said.

A whole lot of paperwork

One of the three program grants awarded so far went to Lucyna de Barbaro and Ayres Freitas, who are building a duplex in Squirrel Hill. Their future home is a passive house — an ultra energy-efficient home that is so well insulated and designed that a space heater kept one wing of the building-in-progress at 66 degrees on a frigid 12-degree day in February, according to a chronicle of the project the couple is recording on Facebook.

The maximum grant available for residential projects is 10 percent of the eligible project costs and Ms. de Barbaro and Mr. Freitas were granted just shy of $70,000.

Mr. Freitas named two factors that might scare off prospective applicants: workers across the project have to be paid the prevailing wage and there is no option to substitute widely accepted green standards for the program’s prescribed standards — LEED Gold, National Green Building Standards or the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes system, all of which are record-keeping intensive.

“The benefit is smaller financially than one would think,” Mr. Freitas said, “and it is definitely more trouble in terms of bookkeeping and paperwork.”

Despite the hassles, he said he appreciated that the state offers such a program. The grant money “really was helpful to make [the house] the way we wanted,” Mr. Freitas said.

But recognizing in hindsight how much the program’s requirements increased the project’s costs and headaches, he said, “I’m not 100 percent sure, if we had to do it again, what our decision would have been” in terms of applying for the grant.

A loss for alternative energy efforts

One change the program’s supporters do not recommend is diverting the funds away from alternative energy projects.

Jeremy Sigmon, director of technical policy for the U.S. Green Building Council, said green construction “helps save energy, water and money, and is projected to account for 342,000 jobs in Pennsylvania by 2018.

“By boosting — not reducing — programs like this, we can capitalize on the state’s talented workforce to drive market transformation and reap economic and environmental benefits faster.”

If the money must be redirected, Ms. Sharrard said, she supports spending it as the broader alternative energy investment act that created the building program intended — “to support alternative energy, to encourage energy efficiency and to reduce overall energy and resource use.”

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com.

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