Energy Asset

Posted on January 21, 2016
Posted By: Rick Barnett

The 1980 USDOE report (DOE/PE-0020), “Low Energy Futures for the United States” painted a cheery picture, where “efficiency improvements provide primary fuel savings that more than offset the growth in the demand for energy services” (page 20). To move toward this energy-balanced future, efficiency programs were established across the US. To this day, community organizations, public agencies and utilities engage homeowners with government incentives, energy-saving tips and motivation.

DOE’s 2011 Buildings Energy Data Book indicates (page 62) that “space heating and cooling – which combined account for 54% of site energy consumption and 43% of primary energy consumption –drive residential energy demand.” Thus, space conditioning is the biggest piece of the residential energy pie, and thermal shell improvement is a homeowner’s best opportunity to use less energy.

Most retrofit insulation is placed around the top floor ceiling joist, because this is the most accessible part of the thermal shell. Unfortunately, less-accessible walls are filled with thermal defects such as studs, pipes, wires, ducts, and electrical boxes. Since wall square footage is always greater than top floor ceiling square footage, defects in the largest portion of the shell are unaffected by residential efficiency programs. A major factor preventing current programs from buffering demand is insufficient attention to the big piece of the pie.

An option for truly plugging our leaky homes is to move past the partial improvement offered by 40-year-old weatherization. A thorough seal between inside and outside can produce a spike in a home’s performance by eliminating thermal defects. Thermal systems using new-construction “wrap” technology can optimize the thermal performance of existing homes, such that the least amount of energy is used for space conditioning. The energy prize would be huge: according to US Census Bureau data, the US has about 130 million homes, with 44% built before 1970.

A long-standing program to reduce space conditioning energy is DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), the largest federal efficiency program.In September, 2014, DOE released a summary of the program’s efficiency accomplishments and cost-effectiveness. This report was followed by an independent evaluation of WAP from The E2e Project, an academic collaboration of economists and engineers. E2e found over-stated claims about the effectiveness of WAP’s weatherization measures. They concluded that “savings was just 39% of the average savings predicted by engineering models” for the 30,000 home sample.

A gap between projected and realized savings could also exist in utility efficiency programs, which use similar weatherization techniques. This is significant, because according to LBNL’s data, customer-funded utility programs were credited with saving 155 TWh of energy in 2014.

For various reasons, weatherization technology hasn’t attained USDOE’S 1980 projection to offset new demand. But, 35 years of development has brought high performance techniques into thermal design.

Improved new home performance is supported by DOE’s Building America teams. One team, the University of Central Florida/Florida Solar Energy Center, “will work directly with leading production builders and product manufacturers to enable 50% whole-house energy savings compared with houses built to code”.

High performance products, such as rigid insulation from Dow and spray foam from BASF, are just starting to move into the energy retrofit market, promoted through suppliers and trade organizations. Deep energy retrofits are also encouraged through projects like Affordable Comfort Inc’s (ACI) 1000 Home Challenge”.

An organization closely connected to elevating the performance of existing homes is the Home Performance Coalition (HPC). In December, 2015, HPC brought “an array of 40 key residential energy efficiency industry stakeholders, thought leaders, and a few outside-of-the-box thinkers”to the “Market Innovation Forum”. HPC reported two key messages from this group:

  • We need to make home performance easier and more accessible for everyone
  • We need a marketing and communications strategy that we can all rally behind………that home performance has tremendous value to the homeowner…
Improved residential performance is also a priority for Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) program, which strives “to motivate and empower homeowners across the United States to invest in home energy upgrades”. A similar leadership gathering was described in a RMI post about their energy industry forum, to “develop a vision and action plan for scaling solutions for energy upgrades”.

The group estimated a “$150 billion residential energy upgrades market opportunity”. They proposed a path for seizing this opportunity through “powerful market interventions to unlock the U.S. energy upgrades market…”

Another look at the future of residential efficiency comes from ACEEE’s 9/15 publication, “New Horizons for Energy Efficiency: Major Opportunities to Reach Higher Electricity Savings by 2030”. One conclusion was that “finding ways of increasing participation in whole-building retrofits is key to driving increased savings in this sector”. Unfortunately, they only credit whole-building retrofits with 1% of emerging efficiency investments. The ACEEE report suggests that space conditioning will remain the largest piece of homeowner energy expense.

These leading-edge strategies point to growth potential for their industry, but don’t offer anything new, to seriously improve leaky homes that could be very efficient.

After lengthy and widespread effort, energy leaders need to acknowledge that very few homeowners will make a large, long term investment in the thermal shell. For example, only 28 homes have met ACI’s “1000 Home Challenge”. “Invisible” efficiency can’t compete with flashy appliances, floors, and countertops, in a homeowner’s retrofit budget. The only option I’ve found for unlocking the energy asset in our homes is to shift thermal shell investment from the homeowner to the home’s energy supplier.

A utility-financed program designed to optimize residential thermal performance could produce a measurable contribution to meeting energy demand and emission limits. Although some utilities already offer their customers efficiency financing with on-bill payment, they employ a conventional weatherization approach to the thermal shell.

The feasibility of utility investment in residential performance stems from several trends:

  • Increasing demand reduction investment, easing the transition to a cleaner energy supply
  • Increasing competitiveness in the energy supply business, adding value to customer retention
  • Increasing supply issues from peak overload and plant closure
  • Expanding emission constraints from the Clean Power Plan and global agreements

Utilities are moving toward conditions that will make residential optimization a permanent, measurable, and cost-effective tool for securing customers while meeting demand and emission limits. Homeowners wouldn’t have to change habits or technology: how could such painless belt-tightening NOT be part of low-carbon energy planning?

We can capture the energy asset in our homes by shifting energy retrofit investment from historically unmotivated (financially constrained) homeowners, to the recently motivated (capital intensive) utility industry. When utilities recognize the permanent and measurable value of optimization, energy retrofit contractors across the country will be able to systematically prepare our neighborhoods for the 21st century.
Who wouldn’t want their utility to provide more comfort and resilience while using the least amount of energy?

Authored By:
Rick Barnett has a B.A. in psychology (UCSB) and an Interdisciplinary Master’s in Environmental Management (Oregon State University, 1981).  Before becoming a builder, Rick introduced the Oregon waste hauler industry to recycling in 1976, and over the next few years convinced many to offer recycling as a service.  Oregon has been a national leader in recycling ever since.Rick started Green Builder in 1996, and was recognized in 1998 by Sustainable

Other Posts by: Rick Barnett

Efficiency Gap - March 07, 2016
After Weatherization - September 25, 2015
Energy Customers - April 08, 2015
Saving Energy - March 10, 2015


January, 29 2016

Malcolm Rawlingson says

I could not agree with you more Rick. There is much we can do to our buildings both old and new to decrease their overall energy consumption but homeowners have been :burned" so many times by false promises that many - including me - are very wary. In Canada Urea Formaldehyde foam was widely promoted by Government to reduce energy loss in walls - only to find out that it (a) disintegrated over time and proved useless and (b) caused health damage to building occupants.Mini flourescent light bulbs (CFL) were and are still actively promoted as a replacement for tungsten filament bulbs with quoted life times of 10000 hours of operation. However they only ever achieve that when used continuously and in my experience replacing all of my bulbs with this technology has been a disaster. The effect on my electricity bill was imperceptible but the cost to me was several hundred dollars. I have now replaced most of them with LED technology and am not faring much better. The LED's are supposed to last 20 years yet 20% of the replaced bulbs in my house are already failing.

So while the promises are grand, the actual usage of these technologies in real life homes does not match the advertising.

I am very reluctant to engage in any more energy saving measures that do not produce the billed results. The only technology that has really been economic was the purchase of a condensing gas furnace which dramatically reduced my electricity bill. It operates at around 97% efficiency has been incredibly reliable (no faults in 15 years of operation) and has more than saved its cost. I am also not subject to "time of use" rates and can use it any time of the day or night for the same gas price.

Perhaps the reason why the utilities don't want to foot the bill is because they already know these technologies do not produce the results expected.

Energy efficiency at any cost is a recipe for going broke.


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