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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin perspectives on what the new Inflation Reduction Act means for consumers and the planet

Battery storage and the crew that installed it
Courtesy of Lisa Geason-Bauer
The crew that installed battery storage in Lisa Geason-Bauer's home, ensuring she has electricity when storms hit the region.

Last month, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA. Within its sweeping scope, the law allocates nearly $400 billion to incentivize clean energy and climate action. Supporters call it a win for consumers in reducing energy costs along with their carbon footprints. But will the carrots rather than stick approach be enough mitigate an increasingly volatile climate?

In rural Waukesha County, Nashotah resident Lisa Geason-Bauer is doing her part and then some.

An early sustainable-living adopter, Geason-Bauer built her green marketing business around it and purchased one of the first all-electric cars in Wisconsin in 2012. From canned LED lights to responsibly-sourced wood cabinets, Geason-Bauer and her husband are well on their way of making their 2,000 square foot 1970s-era home as energy efficient as possible.

There’s a reason her kitchen appliances don’t match, she says, and that's “because I wanted the most energy efficient and responsible [ones]." Geason-Bauer looked for more ways to ratchet up efficiencies and in 2019, she had an energy audit done.

That’s where Kevin Kane with Green Homeowners United comes in. His team worked from attic to basement on Geason-Bauer's home, adding insulation and filling in gaps.

“All of these little gap and cracks can add up to a huge air leakage. It doesn’t have to be very expensive. Air sealing, spray foam, caulk, weather stripping, they’re cheap materials but they have a huge impact if you’re thorough.” Kane adds, “For context, Lisa’s house was average nationwide for energy use, at the end of it she was in the top 10% of homes nationwide according to the Department of Energy.”

  Tom Content, Lisa Geason-Bauer and Kevin Kane
Susan Bence
Tom Content, Lisa Geason-Bauer and Kevin Kane chatting.

Kane says the Inflation Reduction Act includes incentives to encourage more homeowners to come on board, including tax credits for home energy assessments and up to $8,000 to pay for energy efficiency measures recommended through those assessments.

Kane is also a firm believer in green mortgages. “To my knowledge, my wife and I had the very first in the state. But the idea is when you’re beginning or refinancing a house, the lender can roll in more improvements then you can pay for large things that you don’t have the out-of-pocket to pay for right now, and pay for it over time. The idea is that you’re paying it off over time, but with the savings on your utility bill," he explains.

Kane added solar, insulation and other energy efficiencies to his home. “And sure I owe them money back but my utility bill shrunk by more,” he says.

Geason-Bauer says green refinancing allowed her to install solar panels on her home, something she had wanted to do for years.

“Not only can we do solar, we can do solar with battery storage. So we have a battery in our basement, so when we lose power, our battery runs,” Geason-Bauer explains.

Citizens Utility Board Executive Director Tom Content says Geason-Bauer and Kane are examples of people who have taken control of their energy costs. Content believes many more people will now follow.

“If you combine green mortgages with plus what’s going to come through the Inflation Reduction Act in terms the incentives for things like heat pumps, solar, battery storage. The Inflation Reduction Act should just broaden that to more and more people — whether it’s middle income people as well as low to moderate income people, because there are incentives built in there specifically for low to moderate income,” he adds. “It’s not all rolling out right away but, stay tuned, it’s going to be really big.”

In Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, Tim Perkins is excited about what the Inflation Reduction Act can mean in his neighborhood.

In February 2021, Sherman Park became an ECO-Neighborhood, recognized by the City of Milwaukee.

“We have been working in partnership with the city’s ECO office. And now in partnership with Green Homeowners United, especially with Kevin Kane, and Kevin has been working to promote energy efficiency in the neighborhood,” Perkins explains.

About a year ago, Perkins and his wife had their 1930s era home energy audited. “And we found that there were literally a lot of holes in our foundation and around windows and in our attic, which needed to be insulated.” Perkins adds, “There were twelve houses done in Sherman Park. There are already people lining up to do some energy audits of their homes.”

Perkins says a core group of residents, including the Sherman Park Community Association, are committed to folding in more residents.

"It would be great if every block had a green neighbor captain like a block watch captain, so we’re looking at working with SPCA strengthening our neighborhood leadership so they’re focused on how to address typical things — crime and safety — but [also] how to improve the environment around the neighborhood, greening the neighborhood,” Perkins says. “And now with the incentives that are out there that we are just starting to learn more about through the Inflation Reduction bill, that’ so exciting."

Interview with water policy expert Melissa Scanlan aired during Morning Edition on September 6.

Water policy expert Melissa Scanlan has been pouring over the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act.

As director of the Center for Water Policy at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences, Scanlan is acutely focused on the impacts on water from climate change. “I think people need to realize what’s at stake with our water supply and the fact that even though we’re in a place with plentiful water, we are also subject to droughts here and extensive flooding and damage to our infrastructure from those extremes in weather. And that it’s also in our immediate interest to stabilize the climate because of that,” she says.

Scanlan says it’s also important to consider the need for stability beyond of the Great Lakes region. “There is quite a bit of money for farmland and climate-neutral, climate-friendly farming practices, which does impact our water supply. And beyond that there’s also $4 billion in drought mitigation for the Colorado River Basin and other parts of the west that have been suffering extensive droughts.” Scanlan adds, “There’s money for drinking water supplies particularly in disadvantaged communities in the west, for tribes and for water conservation practices in low-income housing.”

Scanlan recently wrote a book, Prosperity In The Fossil Free Economy, in which she proposes a blueprint for social and environmental sustainability. She says an element of that vision is in the Inflation Reduction Act.

“I wrote a lot about the power of the cooperative model of businesses to move us off of fossil fuels and one of the really exciting things in this law is that there’s a lot of money allocated to energy cooperatives to invest in renewables, and we are at such a critical point where those electric energy cooperatives across rural America are about the make investment choices that will last for the next 20 to 50 years, in terms of locking in the sources of power." She adds, “This new law gives the financial incentives that those utilities can use to switch to renewable sources and it’s a really big deal for the 50% of the landmass across the United States served by rural electric cooperatives.”

As for the Inflation Reduction Act’s ability to stabilize the climate crisis, Scanlan calls the task daunting. “Congress is using the power of the purse to nudge people into switching the renewal energy and to electric vehicles, instead of setting a cap and trade or an emissions limit on greenhouse gases.” She continues, “That’s exciting. It also means in order for this to be successful we need to have everyone participating.”

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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