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Oregon community reduces planet-warming pollution by building energy efficiently

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You can build a house in ways that make it comfortable while using hardly any energy. People have understood this for centuries. Think of houses in hot climates with thick walls and high ceilings so the rooms stay pretty cool by themselves. Now, at a time when climate change makes people think about energy use, a tribal community in Oregon is building super energy-efficient homes. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Monica Samayoa met a homeowner.

MONICA SAMAYOA, BYLINE: Marcela Selwyn is excited to see her nearly finished two-bedroom townhome.

MARCELA SELWYN: Oh, my goodness. Oh, wow.

SAMAYOA: There are 24 townhomes like Selwyn's - all part of what's called the Creekside Elder Housing development. These townhomes are for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde's elders who live about an hour and a half southwest of Portland.

SELWYN: This is huge. I love it.

SAMAYOA: Selwyn is 80 years old. She's lived in a Grand Ronde community for 17 years. Her new home is designed to be highly energy efficient. She has all-electric appliances, solar panels, battery storage, a heat pump and an electric vehicle charger. But it's the sun tunnels she likes best that bring natural light through the ceiling to brighten hallways.

SELWYN: I never knew that - how much light there was going to be. I love that.

SAMAYOA: The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde worked with a nonprofit, Energy Trust of Oregon, to put energy-saving technologies into each home in the development. The goal is to help reduce emissions that contribute to human-caused climate change.

DENISE HARVEY: We've all learned more about climate change and the effects of that.

SAMAYOA: This is Denise Harvey. She's a Grand Ronde Tribal Council member.

HARVEY: And the energy efficiency opportunities come up. Pretty much today, we try and do this with all of our new construction.

SAMAYOA: Harvey says high construction costs have always been an issue for the tribe, as well as figuring out ways to help tribal members deal with wildfire smoke in extreme heat. Now, Harvey says, tribal elders can live in these energy-efficient homes while continuing the tradition of being good stewards of the Earth.

HARVEY: I think it's just over time where you show people, you educate them, you - they experience it. And then it's something that they've learned, something that's new, something they transfer down to their children, their grandchildren.

SAMAYOA: Each new home will produce enough energy from solar panels to power them without tapping into the power grid. Scott Leonard with the Energy Trust of Oregon says the tribe's focus on building energy-efficient homes is more cost-effective than retrofitting them. He says the tribe also reduced costs by using renewable energy rebates from the state and local nonprofits. It's a plan Leonard hopes others can replicate.

SCOTT LEONARD: It's important for kind of everyone to know that this can be done.

SAMAYOA: Similar homes are being built in smaller communities in the country, including North Carolina. Carlos Eduardo Martin directs the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard. He says the Creekside Elder Housing development shows what can be done with energy-efficient technologies to lower emissions.

CARLOS EDUARDO MARTIN: I'm grateful for projects like this that show technologies that we know work applied to a community that needs them, that deserves them.

SAMAYOA: The technology isn't new, but Martin says building homes with a focus on energy efficiency deserves to be embraced more.

MARTIN: I'd like to hope that we're going to see more of this trend, mainly because some of the recent legislation.

SAMAYOA: He's referring to the country's first major climate policy that dedicates billions of dollars toward the renewable energy transition. That includes helping homeowners to switch to energy-efficient appliances - features Marcela Selwyn and other elders are enjoying.

SELWYN: I have no words to say.

SAMAYOA: Selwyn moved into her new townhouse this spring with her son and dog.

SELWYN: I'm just excited over it.

SAMAYOA: For NPR News, I'm Monica Samayoa in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Monica Samayoa