Home energy efficiency program success and challenges
“City’s energy efficiency program falls short of goals.” A recent article in the Greensboro, NC News & Record by Amanda Lehmert observed the performance of Greensboro’s “Better Buildings” home energy efficiency program. Lehmert found that 1,280 homes owned by low income homeowners received benefits of $4.7 million: a energy audit and $2,000 to $3,000 worth of improvements to their home. That sounds like a pretty good success, but what happens when you look behind the numbers?
Greensboro’s Better Buildings home energy efficiency retrofit and upgrade work focused on the high impact, high return on investment areas of the home: air sealing, insulation, HVAC improvements. One homeowner saw an immediate savings of $50 on his heating fuel bill. He told all of his program-eligible family members. They applied to the program, and received the home energy audit and retrofit work. These families are saving money this heating season, and will for years to come, because of the program. What works?
- Qualifying homeowners through an initial screening process
- Hiring local home performance contractors to conduct whole house energy audits
- Hiring those contractors to make effective repairs and upgrades to the building envelope
- Using the homeowner’s heating fuel bill as quality assurance verification
These steps are replicable in home energy efficiency programs everywhere, and the homeowner’s immediate savings and word of mouth advertising prove that this approach works.
Residential energy efficiency programs create the market
Greensboro officials estimated that the average homeowner would see a 17 percent reduction in home energy consumption and a corresponding savings in home heating fuel costs. That’s a good deal for any homeowner. Demand was high. At the end of the program 400 low-income families were on a waiting list for 70 remaining contracts. That tells us that a market exists for “bundling” home energy audits and retrofit work.
But that market may be unsustainable. City officials reported that higher-income homeowners who were eligible for rebates and low-interest loans did not participate at the expected rate. 950 fewer households applied for the rebates. 600 homeowners qualified for program incentives but did not hire contractors to do the work. These homeowners were to subsidize part of the program. Their low participation put the program’s overall goals at risk.
Lehmert concludes that:
The lack of interest from homeowners who could pay their own way gets to the crux of Better Buildings’ shortfall in private investment and job creation.
Greensboro-area home performance contractors, on the other hand, suggested that a lack of awareness about the program among higher-income homeowners also played a role.
How a home energy efficiency program succeeds
Greensboro’s Better Buildings program did succeed in connecting home performance contractors and low-income homeowners. These homeowners received a energy audit, typically a $300-$800 expense, and up to $3,000 in home energy efficiency retrofit and upgrade work. These homeowners will receive long term heating energy cost savings. Additionally, they will find their homes are more comfortable and their families are healthier, thanks to air sealing and HVAC system improvements. All of these are quantifiable measures of the Greensboro Better Buildings program’s success.
Future programs should do a better job of marketing available incentives to higher-income homeowners. These homeowners may not know how to start a home energy efficiency project, but they have the means to undertake larger projects, and create local jobs.
Programs can use performance based home energy assessment tools to quickly qualify existing homes and prioritize projects based on the estimated return on investment. This also helps home performance contractors schedule their teams and equipment to work more efficiently.
Programs should devote resources to business development for home performance contractors. Public-private partnerships help create sustainable markets after program funds are exhausted.
It’s well known that once homeowners pick the low-hanging fruit of home energy efficiency they are likely to take additional steps, including major retrofit and upgrade work. Home performance contractors should look at program participants as future customers.
Home energy efficiency program success and challenges are a major part of our larger energy efficiency debate. We know there is strong demand for home energy efficiency, and that there are steps everyone can take to make their homes cheaper, healthier, and more comfortable. Greensboro’s program is a good case study for future programs and for industry professionals looking to grow their businesses.