Here’s how we scale up participation and savings in residential retrofits

Blog | October 12, 2016 - 10:00 am
By Jennifer Thorne Amann, Buildings Program Director

Our existing housing stock is an underutilized energy efficiency resource. We’ve only scratched the surface of its potential to save energy. Decades of research and thousands of retrofits show that even the most basic home retrofits can cut energy use by 15-20% while more comprehensive retrofit projects can double or even triple the energy savings. Residents benefit not only from lower energy bills, but also from improved comfort, better health, and safer, more durable homes. Despite the widely-documented benefits of whole home retrofits, demand for retrofits lags.

Approximately 518,000 retrofit projects were completed through the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program from 2002-2015, according to DOE.  Add to that the roughly 115,000 homes retrofit through the Better Buildings Neighborhood Program and the total number of home performance retrofits completed through the leading program efforts approaches 700,000—less than 1% of US single-family homes. While this number doesn’t include retrofits completed outside of programs or those conducted through weatherization efforts targeted to low- and moderate-income households, it does illustrate the need to scale up retrofit activity to capture the energy savings available.  

How to meet challenges and expand retrofits

Our new report explores some of the lingering challenges facing residential retrofit programs as well as strategies for growing participation while delivering anticipated savings. We include examples of current programs that use these strategies for better results.  Specific challenges include: (1) calculating accurate project-level savings estimates, (2) ensuring that upgrades are installed and perform as expected, and (3) encouraging public buy-in and participation in programs. All of these factors affect a program’s ability to realize savings.

New technologies, practices, and program features represent opportunities to improve outcomes.  Already gaining traction in retrofit programs are data standardization, calibration of energy models to actual energy use, and real-time program evaluation---all strategies that help improve project-level realization rates. Emerging opportunities include leveraging the capabilities of smart technologies (e.g., smart thermostats and home energy management systems), expanded focus on HVAC system measurement and verification, and potentially, the inclusion of pay-for-performance incentives.

Programs can play an important role in growing consumer demand for home performance work. They can improve systems and practices that enable contractors to perform quality work and, at the same, boost energy savings. More accurate, reliable realization of savings at the project level opens up more opportunities to use financing strategies that are tied to energy savings, such as pay-as-you-save or on-bill financing. This can also enable better integration of energy efficiency improvements with other home maintenance and renovation projects, such as roofing or siding replacement. By seizing these opportunities, retrofit program providers can help residents gain all benefits of more energy-efficient homes.