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Avista promoting natural gas

Thu., Nov. 6, 2008

Utility says rebate program for developers encourages energy efficiency, helps tenants save money on utility bills

Beulah Townsend keeps her apartment at a comfortable 71 degrees, and still pays less than $34 per month for utilities.

“I like the double-pane windows,” said Townsend, a retired travel agent.

Energy-efficient heating also helps lower the 88-year-old’s monthly utility bill. Natural gas heats her one-bedroom apartment at Friendship Gardens, a low-income senior housing complex in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood.

Most multifamily dwellings are built with electric baseboard heaters. Baseboard heat is cheaper for developers to install, but less energy efficient and therefore more expensive for the tenants paying utility bills.

“We manage a lot of senior housing …We’re very aware of the affordability factor for residents,” said Shannon Meagher of Kiemle & Hagood, Friendship Garden’s developer.

By installing natural gas, the company spent nearly $40,000 more than it would have on electric units. Avista Corp. helped offset the cost through rebates.

With natural gas heat, Friendship Gardens’ tenants will save about 40 percent on their monthly bills, said Sue Baldwin, a development specialist with Avista. Over the course of a year, tenants’ bills should average about $25 per month, she said.

Avista launched the rebate program for new multifamily construction this spring. With the encouragement of rebates, developers have switched nearly 500 new apartments, condos and townhouses from electric heat to natural gas. The program has been so successful that Avista plans to continue it next year, said Debbie Simock, an Avista spokeswoman.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, the utility has a vested interest in getting customers to use less energy.

Energy savings is the least expensive new resource that the utility can acquire, Simock said. It’s far less costly than building new power plants, she said.

The rebate program attracted the developers of Avery Estates. The 56 townhouse units, scheduled for completion early next year, will be Hayden’s first work force housing project.

The townhouses start at $139,900. They’re marketed to families earning up to $60,000 a year, said Greg Snyder, managing partner for Avery Estates LLC.

“We’re trying to reach the teachers, the firefighters and the police officers, so they don’t have to live outside the city,” said his brother, Jeff Snyder, a partner in the project.

Baseboard electric heat was initially planned for the townhouses. Natural gas cost about $1,000 more per unit to install than baseboard heat, Greg Snyder said.

With the Avista rebates, the developers could afford to install natural gas heat without raising the townhouse’s prices, he said.

Natural gas is also a selling point for potential buyers, most of whom prefer it, he said. At Friendship Gardens even modest savings on utility bills add up for residents, who must meet income guidelines to qualify for the senior complex. For a single person, the income limit is about $15,000 per year, Meagher said.

Townsend moved into Friendship Gardens in June, shortly after the complex opened. Her 600-square-foot apartment is a cheerful space. Family photographs cover the walls, and theological works dominate her bookshelves. Blocks of clear-grained wood are spread out in the living room. Carving is one of her hobbies.

Townsend moved back to Spokane after living in Boulder, Colo., near her sisters. Contacts at her Presbyterian church helped her find Friendship Gardens.

“I told them I wanted to come back to Spokane, but I couldn’t afford very much,” she said.

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122, or by e-mail at

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