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Residential Energy Efficiency: Taking It To The Next Level

The residential energy efficiency field is gearing up to become a major force of job growth and economic activity in cities and towns.

The residential energy efficiency field is at a critical point. Recent years have seen an explosion of advances in design, technology and other resources to reduce waste and drive down utility bills. The problem is that many property owners still don’t take advantage of energy-saving opportunities, even when they demonstrably save money over the long run.

The good news is that many homeowners do recognize energy efficiency as their “top unmet need.” The question now is how to take energy efficiency programs to the next level, and motivate more property owners to meet that need.

Leading The Way On Energy Efficiency

That question brings up another one, namely, how to identify consumer engagement programs that have proven to be effective. After all, if you tote up state and local governments along with trade groups, businesses, non-profits, academic institutions and advocacy organizations there is a mountain of material to sift through.

Fortunately, some of that hard work has already been done.

The US Department of Energy has been supporting building energy efficiency initiatives through a number of channels. Among the programs it offers is — you guessed it — a research-based list of best practices for energy efficiency programs.

Financing is a major concern, and with that in mind let’s take a quick look at several programs that made the best practices list in that category.

One standout example is Pennsylvania’s Keystone Home Energy Loan Program, which arranged financing for energy improvements for more than 11,000 homeowners in three years. The secret to success: Keystone focused on a simple plan and a simple pitch:

HELP found that messages about “low monthly payments” and “no money down” were most effective to help drive loan uptake, as was the idea that homeowners would not encounter any surprises down the road.

Limited-time offers also attract attention and help recruit new customers. The discounts don’t necessarily have to be big to be effective. In Oregon, Clean Energy Works Oregon (formerly Enhabit) promoted a wave of $1,700 rebates followed by a second wave of $500 rebates, and it experienced a lift in participation for both waves.

Streamlining the loan process is also a strategy that yields tangible results, especially when combined with limited-time offers. In Texas,  Austin Energy saw its participation rate rise 10% in a three-month period, during a promotion that included rebates and no- or low-interest loans along with an electronic system that reduced the paperwork burden on home owners.

Along with financing strategies, the best practices list also provides many other examples of effective programs for engaging home owners, such as Greater Cincinnati’s media outreach plan, and Seattle’s contractor training initiative.

Another interesting item that pops up on the best practices list has to do with the importance of seeking customer feedback and tracking performance. In Colorado, that program paid off for Boulder County’s EnergySmart program:

Boulder County’s EnergySmart program conducted an online customer feedback survey following upgrade completion. When the vast majority of homeowners surveyed said they would recommend EnergySmart to a friend or neighbor, this opened up the opportunity for the program to conduct word-of-mouth marketing.

You can find more best practices at the “Proven Practices” list of Energy Department’s Residential Program Solution Center, along with many other resources for contractors and energy planners.

Cities Step It Up

Cities are the acknowledged leaders when it comes to taking action on climate change, so that’s a good place to look for bundles of energy efficiency programs.

Philadelphia is one example worth emulating. The city emerged as an early leader on climate action and cemented its vanguard position back in 2010, when it established the Philadelphia Energy Authority with the vision of positioning the city as a “national model for implementing energy strategies which improve the health of the community and local economy.”

In 2016 the Energy Authority launched the Philadelphia Energy Campaign to bring those elements together and step it up to the next level.

The Energy Campaign is:

…a 10-year, neighborhood-driven job creation platform, that will leverage $1 billion of public and private investment in energy efficiency and clean energy projects in four key sectors:  municipal buildings, K-12 schools, low-income residential, and small business.

If you caught the reference to low-income residential, you’re onto something. While financing strategies can effectively appeal to higher levels of income and education, they often do not reach the low-income bracket, where the need for energy efficiency improvements is especially acute.

The Energy Campaign recognizes that problem, and it is designed to “share the benefits of sustainable energy solutions with those who would otherwise have limited access.”

Those benefits ripple beyond saving energy to creating jobs and improving public health.

The Energy Campaign also focuses on neighborhood economic opportunity:

A recent Penn State/Food Trust study showed that corner stores often pay more in utilities monthly than they do in rent in Philadelphia. Energy is a key driver of neighborhood resources and opportunity, and by focusing on neighborhoods first, we can identify cost-effective, market-driven models that create jobs and stabilize businesses exactly where they’re needed most.

In effect, the campaign leverages energy efficiency as an economic development platform that drives new investment in the city.

On Beyond Cities

Another important driver of residential energy efficiency is the US military. The Department of Defense’s military housing privatization partner, Balfour Beatty Communities focuses on renewable energy as well as energy efficiency and consumer education.

Academic institutions are also stepping up with a combination of energy efficiency improvements and consumer education.

One good example is the Campus Housing Energy Efficiency Retrofit program in California. Aimed at private colleges, this two-phase effort begins with training sessions for student interns and their mentors to conduct lighting audits while changing out old bulbs with energy-efficient models.

The student-lead audits are intended to engage the whole campus in energy conservation as additional retrofits come on board.

The program comes under the umbrella of Southern California Edison’s energy conservation efforts, and it illustrates how utilities and energy companies are also stimulating the residential energy efficiency field.

In the past, utilities had little incentive to promote energy efficiency because the typical business model was based on increasing sales of kilowatt-hours.

Today’s model has turned that equation on its head. Utilities are seeking ways to avoid the cost of building new conventional power plants while deploying more renewable energy.

Georgetown University has been leveraging utilities’ interest in energy efficiency to help local and county governments ramp up their programs.

The school’s annual Energy Prize “challenges towns, cities, and counties to rethink their energy use, and implement creative strategies to increase efficiency.”

One recent program highlighted by Georgetown is “Project Porchlight,” a limited-time LED light bulb promotion in Indiana offered by the Monroe County Energy Challenge with Duke Energy.

Project Porchlight demonstrates how simple, narrowly focused programs can have a significant impact on a community-wide:

Project Porchlight was patterned after a successful Canadian effort designed to engage local residents with energy-saving opportunities in their home. During the month of October, MCEC distributed 1,500 free LED light bulbs through 16 community events, including four energy fairs hosted at neighborhood parks and local hardware stores.

The energy fairs included consumer education focused on winter weatherization. The educational element was also reinforced by local businesses — Bloomington Hardware, Black Lumber, and True Value — which hosted the fairs, and volunteers who conducted one-on-one outreach in “high impact neighborhoods” in the City of Bloomington.

With Duke providing an additional 33,000 LED light bulbs, the promotion was a significant success.

Organizers totaled an estimated $230,000 annually in savings for residents.

The effort signals another emerging trend, in which consumers are encouraged to think of energy efficiency and energy conservation on a community-wide basis.

In Hawaii, Hawaii Energy and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative have taken a slightly different approach, incentivizing local contractors to go out and find opportunities for improvements in home efficiency. Their programs are “direct install” programs, wherein the contractor is only paid if they find an opportunity and make the change (e.g., replacing an incandescent bulb with an LED). Typically, these programs target “hard to reach” consumers (like the lower-income people I mentioned above), like the Hawaii Public Housing Authority or the Department of Hawaiian Homelands.

In sum, the US is only just beginning to tap into the economic potentials that can be unlocked by residential energy efficiency, and many more opportunities lie ahead.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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