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A $63m push to retrofit housing

BHA project will make units energy efficient

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / March 18, 2010

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino will announce today what is being billed as the largest energy efficiency overhaul in public housing in the nation’s history, a sweeping initiative designed to save electricity, countless gallons of water, and millions of dollars.

The $63 million renovation will target 4,300 apartments in 13 Boston Housing Authority developments stretching from Brighton to Charlestown. Thousands of leaky toilets will be traded for low-flow models. Power-sucking lights will give way to hyperefficient LEDs and compact fluorescents. And cantankerous, big-as-a-house, oil-guzzling boilers will be upgraded to cleaner natural gas varieties that will allow residents to control their heat.

“When I was growing up, the way you used to cool the place down in the winter was opening the window,’’ said Bill McGonagle, a BHA administrator who lived in a crowded apartment in the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development in South Boston.

The project promises to do more than eliminate the one-temperature-fits-all heating systems that have forced residents to rely on alfresco thermostats. At the Lenox Street development in the South End, a dozen failing tar roofs that absorb heat like a sponge will make way for white surfaces that reflect warmth and for solar panels. On West Dedham Street at the Torre Unidad development, a newfangled cogenerator will use natural gas to heat hot water and produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of roughly 33 single-family homes.

“It’s the nation’s largest public housing energy performance contract, right here in Boston,’’ said Menino, who will announce the project at the Bromley-Heath development in Jamaica Plain, which will benefit from $11.5 million in improvements that will include new bathroom fixtures, revamped heaters, and thermostats. “I think it’s a win-win for everyone in the fact that it is energy efficient and there is no cost to taxpayers because it is paid for with savings generated by improvements.’’

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which covers utility costs for Boston public housing units, has agreed to continue paying the same amount for the next 20 years. The Boston Housing Authority will borrow $63 million against those future payments and use the money to pay Framingham-based energy firm Ameresco to complete the three-year project.

After the BHA repays the loan and interest over the next 20 years, taxpayers would save an estimated $7 million annually in utility costs for public housing, said David J. Anderson, an executive vice president at Ameresco.

“From a taxpayers’ perspective, we are using a utility expense that the Boston Housing Authority would have to pay if it didn’t do this project,’’ Anderson said. “So essentially what we are doing is deferring almost 30 percent of their utility expense and reinvesting it in their facilities for no additional tax dollars.’’

Buildings devour between 40 and 50 percent of the world’s energy, more than airplanes, sport utility vehicles, and other modes of transportation, according to Douglas Foy, a specialist on energy and the environment who was a Cabinet secretary in Governor Mitt Romney’s administration. Much of that energy is wasted because buildings are poorly designed and have inefficient heating and cooling systems, he said.

“So if you care about climate change, if you care about energy strategies for the country . . . the single largest opportunity to get at it is in retrofitting buildings,’’ Foy said.

For Boston, the agreement with Ameresco is an “easy way to make public housing more efficient,’’ said Seth Kaplan, a senior attorney and vice president for climate advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation. “It’s a great example of how economics, people’s comfort, and environmental protection can all line up in the same effort.’’

A previous efficiency contract allowed the Boston Housing Authority to upgrade a hulking 1938-era boiler from the McCormack housing development recently. City officials have been seeking a similar arrangement on a much larger scale since at least 2007.

So-called energy performance contracts first came into use during the oil shortage of the late 1970s. The deals have surged in popularity in recent years as government agencies and other large institutions try to retrofit bulky buildings for today’s green world. Facilities from the US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Dorchester Bay have used similar financing plans to become more energy efficient.

In public housing, there have been similar initiatives around the country, including in Chicago, which recently completed a $43 million project to modernize its units.

But none has been on the scale of the effort to be announced today in Boston, which will refurbish one-third of the city’s federally supported public housing units, local officials said. The energy upgrades are part of a larger, $238 million upgrade that McGonagle described as the “single largest capital improvement in the 75-year history of public housing in this city.’’ Funding for the overall project includes $73 million in federal stimulus money and $102 million from bonds and the agency’s capital budget.

Part of the efficiency initiative will focus on teaching residents of public housing, who do not pay utility bills, how to conserve energy.

“They need to learn,’’ said Rose Whigham, 72, who lives in the Heath development in Jamaica Plain. “They leave lights on, burn air conditioners all day, all night, instead of turning them off when they go out.’’

McGonagle tells a story about when he first moved in with his wife, who did not grow up in public housing. She spent the first part of their marriage following him around the house shutting off lights off and lowering the heat.

“I had no inkling that you had to pay for those things,’’ McGonagle said. “We have to work with residents to understand the importance of turning down the heat and turning off lights. We don’t want them heating the sidewalk.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at aryan@globe.com.