A tough ride against a strong headwind and a relentless series of menacing inclines; we crawled to each summit with the hope the landscape would have mercy on our worn-out, trembling legs only to find steeper hills around the bend and more devilish winds mocking us, moving with such a haste they took no notice of the six riders struggling in their path east.Foolishly, I had taken 45 miles to mean “a breeze” compared to the 60- and 70-mile rides we had already completed. By midday, it was obvious that that number was irrelevant — even the steep downhills required us to pedal just to keep from getting sent back to Wolf Creek. Imagine dragging a parachute behind and clenching the brakes as you make your way up a hill to get a sense of what our ride was like.

Alma Arteaga pedaling along the Rocky Mountain Front
Alma Arteaga pedaling along the Rocky Mountain Front
For most of us, the way we heat our homes and light our offices is not unlike actually biking uphill with a parachute dragging behind, fingers clenched on the brake levers: it’s inefficient, and frankly, just plain dumb. Upgrading our building stock to run more efficiently makes good economic sense for households and businesses, and in addition to saving us money, it happens to create jobs that can’t be exported and it’s the cheapest way to reduce energy consumption and the externalities associated with mining and burning fossil fuels.
To my surprise and relief — even for an casual cyclist like me — scaling mountains and cycling 70 miles in a day is actually quite feasible with a mix of simple and affordable technology, good fuel (leftovers from a rancher’s wedding and almond butter do wonders), and mindfulness of a few very basic cycling rules. The same ideas apply to how we power our homes, schools and businesses. While it’s very exciting to see the price of solar PVs plummet — like our fully loaded bikes coming down the Big Belt Mountains — energy efficiency continues to hold the most cost savings. Period.

In the traditional sense of the term, conservatism and energy efficiency go hand in hand. I see efficiency as a one of those rare and sacred places where our hyperpolarized politics can be set aside and we find a little patch of common and fertile ground for us to make progress in our communities.

So, as we think about preparing for a bike tour (or how you use energy at home), we’ll want to get a few priorities straight, regardless of how long we’ve been training or what our budget looks like. First of all, get rid of any parachutes, cracked frames, and bad habits on the bike that’ll just wear you out, suck the joy out of riding and force you to spend more time, energy, and money than what is necessary for great touring. Buying a flashy new bike won’t do much to help you get over the hills if you’re still squeezing the brakes. My point — and a point that every expert (regardless of their politics) has hammered home in our meetings along the trail — is: always start with efficiency and conservation.

Near the beginning of our journey across Montana, we met with Ed Gulick, an architect at High Plains in Billings. He is a champion of energy efficiency and conservation and he is working hard to help his community “develop the resource” of energy efficiency, or in other words, realize savings and transition to smarter (higher performance, lower cost) and cleaner energy options. The Northern Plains Resource Council building serves as a showcase for these design principles. Some of the design features include:

1. Optimize building envelop to reduce energy demand (insulation, window placement)

2. Recycle waste heat flows (use the waste heat from refrigeration to preheat water and air)

3. Supply remaining demand with highly efficient electric and mechanical systems

4. Maximize percentage of energy supply from renewable supplies (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass)

Ed told us that, on average, more efficient renovation and new construction upfront costs are only about 10 percent higher than conventional, or what I will call “dumbed down” design, but the payback period is often under five years.

Ed used the Empire State Building as an example of what can be done on a larger scale with energy retrofits: a $20 million capital investment reduced the building’s energy and greenhouse gas emissions by 38 percent, with $4 million in annual cost savings, a simple payback period under five years, and a return on investment of 22 percent!

So, if energy efficiency is such a great investment, I have to ask: Why hasn’t the market caught on? And why isn’t Wall Street trying to exploit it? With interest rates hovering around zero percent, energy efficiency would seem like a no brainer — a prime and productive place to earn a return (not to mention the increasing cost of inaction on climate change and the fact that many of the alternative investments vehicles are just asset bubbles that do not add jobs or productive value to our economy).

So, what’s preventing a flood of money into energy efficiency? One big factor is that each project is different. For investors on Wall Street, different = complexity = risk = expensive.

For the economics of financing energy efficiency to pan out, investors need a clear system of how to calculate risk. So let’s create that system! Well, it turns out some folks at the Environmental Defense Fund and their partners are already working on that piece of the problem.

The Investor Confidence Project developed a set of standards for project developers to follow. The standards allow a third party to rate projects and investors can use the ratings to inform the underwriting of loans. Basically, it gives investors a clear system to evaluate risk across each unique retrofit project.

So, with this project, we can celebrate cresting one small hill on the long and mountainous path toward a clean energy future, despite the headwinds. But, getting rid of the waste is the easy part — it’s the early morning, the winds are calmer, we’re well rested, well fed, and eager to chase rolling hills on the horizon. The greater challenge will be transitioning the global economy to renewable energy and putting carbon back in the ground. Although it can feel as though every force in the universe is resisting these efforts, our only hope for a more just, sustainable and prosperous future is to keep moving forward, even when we see that our path leads us out of the hills to a foreboding wall of snow-capped Rocky Mountains.

– Alma Arteaga