When Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry noticed his home air conditioner wasn’t running properly last year, a local technician quickly diagnosed the problem: A mouse was nesting inside.
But even after the unit was cleaned out and some parts replaced, things were still awry.
"It started to smoke — the air conditioner, not the mouse," Fortenberry recounted in an interview last week. "So he said it’s done."
The scenario is dreaded and costly for any homeowner. But for the five-term congressman, the incident served as a catalyst for an idea he’d been considering for some time: replacing his home air and heating system with a renewable-powered unit.
"I had been discerning, ruminating, analyzing the prospects of my moving my own home, as much as I can, toward renewables," Fortenberry said. "And really advancing the concept in my own life, not only of being an energy steward, but seeing if I could position the house as its own micro-energy farm."
Inspired by a staffer’s experience, Fortenberry began to research a replacement unit powered by geothermal energy. It quickly became clear that converting the entire house to geothermal would have been cost-prohibitive.
"The initial cost estimate was about $30,000," he said, compared with about $3,000 for a new electrical HVAC unit.
Fortenberry decided to keep the working electrical unit that services the second floor of his house, while replacing the first floor’s broken unit.
After crunching the numbers — including incorporating a federal tax credit, a state energy efficiency loan program, and rebates from the local power system and an equipment supplier — Fortenberry had a geothermal unit installed last summer to heat and cool his first floor.
"So by the time all of those forms of assistance came through, you’re looking at about a $9,000 bill," he said. "So I had about $6,000 in added costs."
Fortenberry concedes the added expense and system complexity may deter others from following his lead. But unlike with most homeowners, Fortenberry’s views on energy are informed by his seat on the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Last week, the congressman recounted his mouse experience to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz during a hearing on the department’s fiscal 2017 budget request.
Speaking later in the week with E&E Daily, Fortenberry framed the decision in personal terms. "I had the capacity to do this, I was glad to do it, and I had researched all the dynamics and put together a finance package that makes sense," he said.
"I had an inclination to want to do it because I’m interested in trying to drive toward micro-energy production, distributed energy, conservation and even the potential of seeing the household become a net energy producer. So these are all the reasons I did it, but it obviously had to make financial sense. And this is a longer-term horizon but not so long term as to be prohibitive."
Fortenberry assiduously monitors his electric and natural gas bills and estimates the savings will pay for the geothermal unit in six to 10 years.
"The gas bill has dropped off tremendously," he said. "And as an adjunct to this, I installed a system that preheats the water for the water heater by drawing off the geothermal system as well."
However, Fortenberry said his electric bill has "shot through the roof" the past two months during the cold Nebraska winter because his geothermal unit contains an electric override mode that switches on during extreme cold. He plans to seek an energy audit "to see if there’s some fine-tuning that I can do" to rectify the situation.
But Fortenberry said he’s "absolutely" pleased with his decision so far and is planning to research options for incorporating solar and micro-wind turbines into his home.
"I’m really happy I went through with it because this is the way of the future," he said. "Instead of me just trying to pursue policies that create a more balanced energy portfolio, I actually did it myself. There’s something that’s gratifying in that."
And while Republicans in recent years have grown resistant to federal tax breaks for renewables, Fortenberry said that, as a conservative, he had no qualms about claiming one himself, noting that the incentives helped lower costs and create more options for homeowners.
"I’ve supported these things," he said. "The conservative logic, if you will, is the externality costs of the hydrocarbons are not accounted for in production costs. That creates an unleveled playing field. There is real social cost to that, it’s just not reflected in the market price."
He continued: "So that’s why you justify a movement toward a much more balanced portfolio, as aggressive as we can, toward a more sustainable energy set of systems for the country. And you’re in effect subsidizing, yes, the cost of that, but it’s offset by the decline in the externality cost of other forms of energy."