The Science of Sustainability

Home Energy Efficiency is All About Location, Location, Location

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What's your home energy efficiency hot button? Photo by Leslie Jackson.

There is a hot and heavy dialogue taking place in an online group that I belong to, made up mostly of people who are in the business of auditing homes and then making homes more energy efficient, healthy, and comfortable. The main gist of the discussion is, Do we rely on the government to encourage people to make their homes more efficient, or is it up to the market? Does this sound familiar? Tune into any election debate in the country and you will hear some version of the same discussion/argument.

As in just about everything else in life, the answer is not either/or, but both/and. That is the conclusion of a study recently completed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), “Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements”. The government has already poured billions of dollars into improving building efficiency in this country. Since about 40% of the nation’s electricity is used in buildings, the down payment in energy efficiency will bring much more than it’s value in saved energy, lessened green house gas emissions, and energy security. But government money isn’t enough. The energy efficiency community is scratching its collective head trying to figure out how to motivate people to save energy at home. The conclusion of the LBNL report is that, while government tax incentives and rebates are important, it is up to local governments, retailers, and large and small home performance companies to sell energy efficiency. And every location and every homeowner is different, with different values and needs.

What works for you? 1) Increased comfort; 2) saved energy and money; 3) a saved planet; 4) less chance we’ll go to war again over oil resources; or 5) keeping up with the Jones? Yes, social scientists have discovered that one of the primary motivating factors in saving energy is peer pressure. Even a simple message on your utility bill comparing your energy use with the average energy use in your neighborhood has been effective in getting people to retrofit their homes or make simple adjustments in their lifestyles to save energy. You may or may not hear the word “audit” or “retrofit.” The social science data also suggests that audit makes us think about our taxes, and retrofit sounds like going backwards.

Does “increasing your home’s performance” motivate you to keep your thermostat at 780F on a hot day? Does “cut your energy bill by 30%” cause you to type “home performance contractor” into Google to find a local contractor? Does the possibility of seeing yourself as an energy hog get you moving to insulate your attic? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog entry.

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Category: Climate, Energy, Environment

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Jim Gunshinan

About the Author ()

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.
  • Ryan S. Arnold

    As a former Energy Auditor and now State Inspector for weatherization, I often have the same discussion about government funding vs. private initiative. The recent article in the NYT today <http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/weatherization-went-awry-audit-shows/&gt; shows the issues that arise with a large influx of government money to do large quantities of job that agencies might not be equipped to do, specifically trained labor. When you put inexperience out in the field with large deadlines and quotas, you end up with sub par weatherization work until labor can get to the skill level they need to be. Once labor is trained and resources are scaled though, the work becomes in my experience above par with the private field. I can only speak for the work in my state though, which seems to be an exception to other state programs. The main issue is that government funded weatherization will never be self sustaining and always need a constant influx of money, while a semi-private initiative such as the PACE programs (RIP) could self sustain themselves while removing the barriers to entry in energy efficiency improvement, specifically the upfront costs. As a home owner, I know what needs to be done to my house to improve its efficiency, but the upfront costs still prevent me from doing it. If I, as a Wx Inspector with an environmental leaning can't find the financial will to make the major improvements necessary, then I understand that the majority of the public will also have a hard time, and that is the crux of the private energy efficiency field. We can always find the jobs of doing energy retrofits on 3,000 sq. ft luxury homes, but we know the majority of improvements necessary are to the homes who's homeowners cannot afford the work. So I think your right when you say both government and private programs are necessary. Government has a place to reduce energy costs for low income residence as long as they are subsidizing their heating costs (perhaps a whole different discussion) because they are doing the same thing as non-low income private homeowners, putting up the upfront costs for the long term return on investment (plus their environmental and social goals they hope to achieve through Wx). Hopefully weatherization can improve across the country so that they get the return on investment they are looking for.

  • Hugh Stearns

    The government is not part of the market? If you mandate home efficiency ratings before a home goes on the MLS people will factor this information into their buying decision. Is that then market driven or government driven?

    stearnsdesignbuild.com

  • JPGunshinan

    Hugh and Ryan, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Hugh, I hope I didn't convey the idea that government should be completely separate from the market. I don't think it does. I do think the government can intervene in a market in a way that can spur innovation and positive change. Your comment about requiring energy ratings before real is an excellent example. That approach and others like it have worked to varying degrees in other countries.

    Ryan, you make an excellent point from the "inside" if the weatherization community. That is still an open question—will the economy support the kind of long term commitment to making homes more energy efficiency, healthy, comfortable, and affordable after the ARRA funding is gone. There will be people trained for weatherization work in low-income houses who will want to move into jobs in the private sector and I sure hope there are enough jobs available in 4 or 5 years for them!

    A lot of people are hoping that the Home Star legislation now languishing in Congress will pass and create big market incentives for homeowners to do energy retrofits. I am among them but I'm not counting on it. There are other ways, such as the PACE program that you mention.

    Hopefully we will all be wiser and more successful after this big experiment is done!

  • http://www.greenbuildercoalition.org Mike

    I wrote about the voluntary market's failure to embrace green building by examining the number of homes that went for certification under one of the 3 main national green building programs (Energy Star, LEED for Homes and National Green Building Standard).

    http://greenbuildercoalition.org/news/torch-10-2011#review

    Granted, this column is almost 2 years old, but the paltry percentages haven't changed much.

    I certainly acknowledge that homes can be green without going through a certification. But even if you double the percentages I cite in my article, it's still underwhelming.

    My organization feels codes are the way to generate the most change. Let the proprietary and voluntary programs continue to raise the bar. We'll work to set some sort of floor. After all, it's (next to) the least we can do.