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Energy Innovation

Posted by Rick Barnett on January 27, 2016

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. 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.

Technician blows insulation into an exterior wall.

 

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:

  1. We need to make home performance easier and more accessible for everyone
  2. 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) Residential Energy+ 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-house 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 and interventions point to the growth potential of residential efficiency, but don’t offer anything new, in terms of capturing the potential of our homes to be energy efficient.

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.

After all these years, energy leaders need to accept 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 thermal optimization stems from several trends:

  • Increasing demand-side investment, supporting 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 measurable, cost-effective tool for securing long-term 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?

Rick Barnett can be reached at greenbuilder@proaxis.com

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