Hard to Reach or Great Opportunities?

Blog Post | August 13, 2013 - 9:58 am
By Joel Freehling, Senior Energy Finance Consultant, Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Group

One of the most overused misnomers in the energy efficiency field is the term “hard to reach” for customer segments that aren’t easily served through existing utility customer-funded programs and marketing channels. The reality is that the segments covered by this term shift constantly as new programs or business models are developed that allow segments to be served cost-effectively, at scale. Over the past decade, the “hard to reach” label has been applied to numerous programs, from multifamily and public housing, to small industrial, rural, small commercial, and foodservice customers, to second refrigerators. Indeed, initially, few would have thought that second refrigerators could be identified, collected, and disposed cost-effectively, at scale—households were reluctant to part with these items, the savings per item were too meager to make a difference, and the costs of collection were too high to justify doing so. But now such programs are routine and deemed effective.

Given these realities, the term “hard to reach” is itself problematic and has long outlived its usefulness. Instead, a more appropriate label may be “next-generation opportunities,” since these segments present real opportunities for utility-led programs and are critical if utility programs are going to serve the entirety of their customer base and continue to meet their expanding energy savings goals.

Renaming these segments as opportunities for the next generation will encourage energy efficiency researchers and practitioners to better understand and document the systemic lessons to be learned about innovative program design, marketing, and technology. Only through documenting how to best reach the seemingly unreachable can the energy efficiency industry refine innovation processes and program design development. Doing so will ultimately drive down the costs of development and customer acquisition and better ensure the success of new program models. Learning from these emerging programs can help the next generation of energy efficiency programs serve all customer segments more effectively.

There are a multitude of success stories to draw on—for instance, the exemplary multifamily programs ACEEE recognized recently include Energy Savers in Chicago, Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey, and the LEAN low-income retrofit program in Massachusetts, or the work to expand services to the small commercial and affordable housing sectors in Illinois and Wisconsin. The list of innovative efforts is extensive, but the lessons remain hidden and untapped. ACEEE’s recent report on next-generation programs charts a course for tapping into many of these opportunities and the Multifamily Energy Savings Project is working to share lessons in how best to reach the multifamily housing sector. As a community, energy efficiency practitioners and researchers should continue to look ahead and move beyond the hard to reach to what is just around the corner.

Kate Johnson contributed to this post.