Driving Demand For Home Energy Retrofits. Ooh Yeah, Baby!
Governments and utilities everywhere have been struggling for decades with how to cut residential energy consumption and stimulate deep home energy retrofit work. Billions of dollars have been spent on incentives and awareness campaigns to change attitudes and behavior. Yet, the Department of Energy reported last year that there are still up to 4 billion incandescent bulbs in sockets in the U.S. And, despite cash incentives to spur deeper retrofit work -- such as air sealing, insulation and furnace upgrades -- only 100,000 homes in the U.S. have had work done (work that generates a minimal 20% improvement on the efficiency of a home).
Meanwhile, the home renovation market is booming -- with only 30% of the non-energy retrofit work (such as granite counter tops, new bathrooms, etc.) being financed. A recent review of the home energy retrofit market by Vermont-based energy consultant Chris Granda revealed that there are up to 17 million stand-alone residences in the U.S. where the homeowners likely have the resources to retrofit their homes without backend incentives. Yet, they aren't doing it.
Why? First of all, a high level of pervasive pessimism and disengagement still exists. So many people just don't believe that their simple actions matter, so they simply don't act. Secondly, energy conservation remains an abstract notion for most people. We within the industry may understand what a Kw/h or a DSM program is, or what "Home Performance with Energy Star" is all about. But by calling them "programs," we distance ourselves from real people and what they care about. What folks really want is a nice deck. They don't have the same sense of desire for invisible batting between the floor joists.
Perhaps most significantly, the deep home retrofit incentive model is broken -- and everybody knows it. Dangling cash incentives in front of homeowners to get them to blow insulation into their attic just doesn't work effectively enough. I might like the idea that I could get $5,000 back for improving the efficiency of my home, but study after study shows that people just don't stay motivated as they travel the long road from energy audit to contractor engagement to submitting the rebate forms. It's too much work, especially if you already feel cynical and haven't even done the simple stuff, like changing light bulbs.
What we need to do is change the dialogue about energy efficiency so that people will understand its benefits. In addition to "savings" let's use words like comfort, security, health, safety and warmth. Instead of using cash at the backend to drive and sustain demand, let's use the little, cheaper things upfront to stimulate conversations between neighbors that lead to a deeper understanding of the importance of this work and drive a sense of common purpose that overcomes the cynicism and the barriers.
There's still that matter of how to pimp the attic insulation. Let's get working on that.