The Energy Chronicles

New Approaches to Home Energy Efficiency Incentives

Several tough and interesting topics were engaged during the recent Iowa Energy Summit, an annual gathering of industry professionals, utility representatives, lawmakers, real estate professionals and others. Three presentations put a spotlight on single-family and low-income homes and innovative ways to boost participation in energy efficiency programs.

The first speaker came to us from the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE), based in Minneapolis. Shockingly to my ears, the pilot they conducted tallied roughly 30% of participating homes in this chilly region lacking any wall insulation. This non-profit has taken a hip-deep approach to turning audits into projects, coordinating with three local insulation contractors to present audit results, an insulation project quote and scheduled date all during the initial site visit.

Considerable auditor training and ongoing coordination with the contractors has been required but so far, this pilot has turned a 4.9% conversion rate for insulation projects into a 15% rate. My take-away: Make the project easy for the homeowner, and they’ll make a good investment in insulation for their home.

Second, two presenters from Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation (WECC) gave an eye-opening account of the rubbish state of manufactured home energy efficiency. The code governing construction of these homes was last updated in 1994, and with an average energy use per square foot more than double that of site-built homes, it’s clear that most manufacturers aren’t building their homes to a high efficiency standard.

A common problem is the lack of insulation in the “belly,” or underside, area of the home, and lack of insulation on ductwork in the belly. Compounding the initial problem of poor efficiency is the fact that the majority of families living in these homes are low-income, meaning that high bills and poor comfort can be a serious burden, and that typical utility incentives may not bridge the gap between better efficiency and affordable cost.

WECC, in partnership with local utilities, has brought out pilots that are aiming to bring a big hammer to this problem. Their approach is to make the critical work of insulating the belly and sealing and insulating the ducts a free direct install. They are even including refrigerators for free replacement. So far, they are moving along in Wisconsin and Michigan and results are showing this to be a cost-effective approach when targeted to the highest energy users.

Finally, two presenters from The Energy Group discussed the obstacles utilities face in gaining participation in their single-family programs, as well as the obstacles low-income households face in improving the efficiency of their homes. Low-income households in the U.S. and Iowa live in the least efficient buildings and are significantly burdened by energy bills, yet without the help of direct install or whole-home programs, they have little ability to invest in better efficiency.

Iowa has healthy low-income efficiency programs, but more can be done. Single-family homes can tap into the Weatherization Assistance Program to have their homes insulated and sealed, but a significant portion of projects are deferred indefinitely because of structural problems, and these homes can still face high costs if they have outdated appliances or HVAC, or use electric furnaces or baseboards.

I believe innovative approaches are needed. Non-profits like CEE and WECC are doing remarkable work to boost implementation of energy efficiency projects. Both are taking a more involved approach than with typical audit programs and both are using tools such as financing to bridge the affordability gap. An important goal for the industry should be to get the incentives for improved efficiency to those who most need it and can often benefit the most. There are lessons to be learned at the Summit and all over the U.S. in how to bring this goal closer to reality.

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