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Phila. gets a big boost for greener homes

For a quarter-century, Liz Robinson has tried to perfect the Philadelphia rowhouse. She has worked to transform it from an energy hog - drafty in winter, baking in summer - into a model of energy conservation.

For a quarter-century, Liz Robinson has tried to perfect the Philadelphia rowhouse.

She has worked to transform it from an energy hog - drafty in winter, baking in summer - into a model of energy conservation.

Sometimes, progress was so slow it seemed she was going backward.

But last week, Robinson and the nonprofit group she heads, the Energy Coordinating Agency, got its biggest boost in a while - including a chunk of federal money at midweek and, on Friday, a visit from U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Chu came to tour a West Kensington green-jobs training center the agency opened this year. With Mayor Nutter, U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey, and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah tagging along - and chiming in - his visit became a pep rally for energy efficiency.

"You must be in seventh heaven," Chu said, turning to Robinson, who grinned back at him.

On Wednesday, Vice President Biden announced that Southeastern Pennsylvania would receive a $25 million federal energy grant.

It will be used for retrofitting homes and commercial buildings to make them more efficient. Officials have estimated it will create hundreds of jobs and save residents and businesses millions of dollars in energy costs.

A major part of the funding will be used for a low-interest loan program for retrofits. Robinson's agency will receive some money to administer a portion of the education and outreach program.

The agency also provides weatherization assistance for hundreds of low-income homes each year, and it has programs to repair and replace heaters, to promote water conservation, and to train people for green jobs.

That same day, the department initiated a $30 million weatherization program, and Robinson says she has a good shot at winning a grant.

She has a new plan for reflective roofs - a technology both she and Chu rave about.

The attics of many Philadelphia rowhouses are difficult to insulate because workers can't get to all the corners. In addition, the roofs often leak, and patches last only so long.

Robinson wants funds for a pilot project to adapt for homes what they did on the roof of the green training center. Workers sprayed an insulating foam not under the roof, but on top of it.

And because it's white, it reflects heat in the summer. Studies have shown that if a city has enough white roofs, it would reduce the "urban heat island" effect. An abundance of black roofs and pavement are the reason cities are warmer than rural areas.

Likewise, install enough white roofs on the entire planet, and we may regain some of the reflectivity we're losing with melting ice caps.

"They're incredibly simple," Robinson said, costing about the same as a dark roof, but with many more benefits. "There are the energy benefits, of course, but we demonstrated in our low-income work their life-saving benefits. They prevent row homes from turning into ovens."

So it was another happy moment for Robinson on Thursday when City Council unanimously passed a measure requiring all new residential and commercial construction in the city to have highly reflective roofs.

Friday, Robinson led the crew of officials around the center, a former warehouse built in the 1850s. At one point, it was a manufacturing facility for Civil War uniforms.

Now, the old wooden floor, newly sanded and sealed, is a training lab with mock Philly rowhouses constructed to mimic the problems an energy expert might encounter. It has a demonstration area for different heating systems and a "pressure lab" showing how to detect air leaks in a building.

Against one wall are the pipes for the solar hot-water system. Not far away are the pipes for the rainwater collection system, which channels rain from the roof to a massive tank, where it is used for flushing the toilets and washing agency trucks.

So far, the agency has trained about 650 people - veterans, drop-outs, Ph.D.s, out-of-work architects, you name it - for new energy careers, Robinson said.

After the tour, Chu spoke to several dozen city officials and board members of the Energy Coordinating Agency, telling them that with energy efficiency programs, "everybody wins. You're saving money. You're saving carbon dioxide emissions."

Nutter has been a vigorous cheerleader for making Philadelphia the greenest city in the nation.

To do that, Robinson said, "we have to have the greenest work force in the nation. That's what we're doing here."