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Raters at the Roundtable

This third article in a series about rebuilding in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina focuses on a program in Louisiana that enlists RESNET raters to promote energy efficiency and help grow the home performance market.

November 07, 2010
November/December 2010
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Rating a home’s energy performance is a specific and data-based service, a service that produces quantifiable results, which, in turn, suggest a particular set of priority-based improvements. And that’s it. Energy raters offer a narrowly focused and analytical intervention in the much larger universe of home-related construction activities. Nothing more.

RESNET Certification Students

Students on their way to RESNET certification prepare for a supervised rating session in New Orleans. Louisiana’s $15-million Home Energy Rebate Option (HERO) program will rely on 100-plus RESNET raters to verify residential and commercial rebates up to $5,000. (Roger Hahn)

That’s exactly how I saw the role that energy ratings play in the larger scheme of advancing the home performance industry. Until I sat in with a group of RESNET-certified raters gathered late last summer to discuss the rollout of Louisiana’s newly funded Home Energy Rebate Option (HERO) program (see “Residential, Commercial, and Equipment Incentives”).

The gathering was sponsored by the New Orleans–based Alliance for Affordable Energy, a nonprofit organized 25 years ago to act as a watchdog over local utility regulation. Since then, it has become an advocate for a range of activities that includes lowering energy consumption. Now, in the midst of post-Katrina rebuilding, the Alliance has decided to help to build a regional market for consumer-based, energy-efficient products and services (see “A Working Model for Market Building”).

As part of that commitment, the Alliance became the sole RESNET provider in Louisiana, and has taken responsibility for convening monthly rater roundtables in its BuildSmart Learning Center, a life-sized model built for the 2007 New Orleans Home and Garden Show with cutaway displays that showcase state-of-the-art practices in green building, residential solar, and energy efficiency.

Residential, Commercial, and Equipment Incentives

The current version of the state of Louisiana’s HERO program, effective May 1, 2010, received slightly more than $15 million in ARRA funding. The program is one of several Empower Louisiana programs sponsored by the state’s DNR using a total ARRA allocation of $71 million and other sources of funding. Program guidelines for this phase of the program provide larger rebates than previous versions for both new and existing homes.

Under the new guidelines, new homes qualify for a $2,000 rebate simply by achieving a HERS score of 70; a $3,000 rebate is available for homes that achieve a 50% energy savings over the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code, with at least 20% of that energy savings based on improvements to the building envelope. Existing homes with a 30% improvement in energy efficiency also qualify for a $3,000 rebate. New to this version of HERO, commercial buildings that achieve a 10% reduction in energy usage qualify for a $5,000 rebate.

A RESNET-trained rater who is also registered with the state HERO program must verify all residential and commercial savings. The first 100 individuals who became RESNET-certified raters enrolled in the HERO program qualified for both a 60% training rebate up to $1,000 and a 50% equipment rebate up to $5,000.

From 1999 to 2010, previous versions of Louisiana’s HERO program issued nearly 18,000 rebates for new and existing homes, totaling $25.5 million. At its peak, from 2002 to 2004, the program issued more than 3,000 rebates a year, amounting to more than $4 million in reimbursements annually. The Louisiana DNR estimates that the HERO program, in the course of its lifetime, has been responsible for cumulative savings of 15 trillion Btu of energy, 2,600 kilotons of CO2, and 3,700 tons of nitrogen oxide.

Potential Business Ambassadors

I left the 90-minute meeting impressed by the variety of backgrounds, interests, and professional perspectives represented by the 18 raters in attendance. I was also surprised at the variety and number of concerns participants brought to the table.

In a group that contained raters with decades of experience, raters with only one completed rating under their belt, and weatherization program contractors with no direct rating experience, the conversation ranged from concerns about health hazards to both raters and clients to the prevalence of termites in the city’s subtropical climate.

Along the way, the group spent a lot of time discussing widely disparate policies at the local, state, and federal levels regarding regulation enforcement, as well as the responsibilities and intricacies of working within New Orleans’s many historic districts.

The meeting ended with several raters acknowledging the critical link between raters and contractors, and the fact that each group occasionally needs to enlist the services of the other to meet the client’s needs. That observation led to a key agenda item for the next meeting: to bring in one or more contractors, with an eye toward opening a long-term dialogue.

Without much coaching, it seemed to me that the group easily achieved its stated goal and then some, eliciting active and engaged participation that could easily become a resource for building a community of raters and helping individuals grow their own practice. Later in the evening, I realized another implication of empowering raters, especially when it comes to market building.

The single theme that ran through 90 minutes of animated conversation was the role played by energy raters as a critical link between homeowners and the rest of the home performance and construction industry. Placing that role in the context of an emerging market, I began to see that energy raters might play an unexpectedly central role in business development. I realized that the first contact with active consumers could become a powerful catalyst in helping to build a market for home performance work. The ability to assess a home and counsel
homeowners on how to improve their homes gives raters a rich opportunity to act as a kind of business-promotion vanguard.

Wade Byrd

Veteran RESNET trainer Wade Byrd, a former RESNET board member, helped create the original version of Louisiana’s HERO program in the mid-1990s. (Roger Hahn)

A Real Passion for Home Performance

In addition to becoming a RESNET provider and convening monthly rater roundtable meetings, the Alliance for Affordable Energy agreed to sponsor local training. Following a six-day course held in August, the Alliance sponsored three supervised rating sessions, giving would-be raters an opportunity for hands-on learning.

The instructor for the supervised sessions was Wade Byrd, a longtime home performance advocate and the state’s only RESNET-credentialed instructor. I knew a little bit about Byrd before I arrived on-site early Saturday morning to check out one of his supervised rating sessions. I knew, for example, that Byrd had played a central role developing the HERO program for the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the early 1990s, and that he had run it until he retired from the department in 2003. And I knew he’d been an adviser to the DNR on spending the $71 million allocated by the State Energy Program component of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), with $15 million going toward a revived and expanded HERO program.

When I heard Byrd, first thing in the morning, briefing his assembled group of newly minted raters, I expected the day’s session would be led by a highly trained and somewhat garrulous leader. What I got was something else.

Displaying all the charm and local spirit of a true Gulf Coast native, Byrd turned out to be a genuinely savvy home performance specialist, using his God-given gift for discourse in the service of verbal communication. Making a joke on himself, he called his extended observations about the previous day’s activities “preaching,” but that’s what he was doing, talking about the specifics of measuring home performance while imparting a real drive and passion for the role of the rating professional.

After he retired from both the DNR and the RESNET board of directors in 2003, Byrd started his own company, offering energy audits, solar installation, and RESNET training. His approach to training reflects the intensity of his commitment to improving home performance. Making use of a focused learning environment, Byrd delivers his in-depth curriculum in a secluded setting owned and run by Louisiana State University and located in central Louisiana. Camp Grant Walker contains a conference center, dorm, and cafeteria, allowing students to study intensely for the duration of Byrd’s nine-day course with nothing to distract them.

Byrd was now ready and waiting for the rollout of the new HERO program. At the same time, he understood that the revived program lacked some components that it needed to make it as successful as it could be. There were no RESNET providers registered in Louisiana, for example, and without a network of experienced raters in the area there was little opportunity for new raters to deepen their understanding of both rating technology and rating as a business. And aside from Byrd’s in-depth training sessions, there was little available on a more informal, local basis.

A Working Model for Market Building

New Orleans’s Alliance for Affordable Energy came into being 25 years ago as a government watchdog and policy advocate. Post-Katrina, the organization has expanded its mission to include encouraging the growth of a local home performance industry, which organization leaders believe will ultimately provide consumers with maximum economic benefit in a postdisaster rebuilding environment.

To help manage that process, Senior Program Manager Forest Bradley-Wright has developed a conceptual model, which identifies the components of an organized marketplace and describes how they are related to one another. Suggesting a critical role for nonprofits, the model assumes that the population of potential customers will include “anyone who pays a utility bill.”

If that’s the case, Bradley-Wright says, it naturally follows that public awareness and consumer education will play primary roles in stimulating increased market demand. And consumer education will probably be more effective at eliciting that demand when it’s accompanied by public policy initiatives that provide meaningful incentives for improved energy efficiency.

Timing is also crucial, Bradley Wright says. Increasing demand, for example, won’t lead directly to local support unless local industry growth is timed to meet that demand; otherwise market forces will seek supplies of goods and services elsewhere. But meeting demand will also require sufficient numbers of appropriately trained employees, so workforce development should follow a track that closely mirrors ongoing business expansion.

Finally, to justify requests for financial support and demonstrate operating success, all nonprofits today are required to develop tangible measures of accomplishment. When soliciting support for home performance market building, Bradley-Wright suggests that these measures might include the overall number of homes affected, financially documented savings in energy costs, and the sum of improved home performance ratings.

Practical Young Visionaries Spur Transformation

But to create the kind of resources that would really help the restructured HERO program to thrive, Byrd realized that he needed to partner with a nonprofit. When he contacted the New Orleans–based Alliance for Affordable Energy—widely recognized in the state as an effective government watchdog, a successful lobbyist for policy reform, and a strong proponent of grassroots citizen organizing—the Alliance readily agreed to play a key role in a rollout of the revived HERO program.

In the post-Katrina world of reconstruction and civic renewal, the Alliance had already begun to build momentum as an advocate for energy-efficient and sustainable home building. This was partly because the Alliance saw energy efficiency as the obvious demand-side complement to its established track record in supply-
side reform. But it was also a function of new leadership within the organization—specifically Senior Program Manager Forest Bradley-Wright, a native of Eugene, Oregon, who decided that the Alliance should play a significant role in post-Katrina rebuilding.

Just 33 years old, Bradley-Wright represents an entire cohort of 20- and 30-somethings drawn to opportunities for change in post-Katrina New Orleans—an influx of talented and ambitious young people who are helping to transform the landscapes of education, community organizing, criminal justice reform, housing, health care, and countless nonprofit initiatives.

In addition to his role at the Alliance for Affordable Energy, Bradley-Wright is partnering with two other green-building advocates to develop a 4-acre industrial park. The park will be devoted entirely to businesses and organizations that seek to create a vibrant new market in green-building goods and services. The partners recently purchased a former car dealership located in a rapidly recovering commercial corridor surrounded by residential neighborhoods. There they plan to build a 120,000 ft2 business center directly adjacent to sidewalk street traffic. The project mirrors to some extent the Natural Capital Center in Portland, Oregon, a 70,000 ft2 development that is home to a variety of environmentally aware businesses and organizations. Open since 2001, the Natural Capital Center has become the city-based center for a regional green movement.

From Government Watchdog to Market Catalyst

So the idea of playing a crucial role in the rollout of a new HERO program with an eye toward sustained market building and business development suited Bradley-Wright just fine. His organization had already partnered with the city of New Orleans and three other nonprofits to become one of the first cities included in DOE’s Solar American Cities partnership—created to accelerate the adoption of solar technology—and he’d already taken responsibility for chartering a solar roundtable, formed in 2008 just as the state legislature approved a remarkable 50% solar tax credit, in addition to the federal 30% credit, for all residential installations.

Anticipating legislative approval, local real estate developer and business consultant Troy Von Ottnot founded a solar-installation company, South Coast Solar, using just his credit card. By the end of 2008, the company had grossed $1.2 million. It grossed $4 million in 2009 and currently expects to top $10 million in 2010, easily making South Coast Solar the state’s largest solar installer.

The solar roundtable is actually one of three roundtables the Alliance supports. The other two are roundtables for RESNET raters—one for raters who have signed up to use the Alliance as their RESNET provider and a more general one for other raters. The distinction is crucial, says Bradley-Wright, and has nothing to do with the desire to reach the largest possible number of participants. The three roundtables are designed to reinforce one another, with the solar roundtable serving most directly as a small-business incubator. The providership roundtable focuses more narrowly on business development, putting into practice lessons learned from the solar roundtable, while the more-general rater roundtable acts as a community clearinghouse and business advocate.

The three-tiered structure serves two purposes. It identifies relevant activities for the participants in each roundtable while providing the Alliance with an opportunity to make each roundtable self-supporting.

The operating environment in New Orleans now is highly dynamic for both the nonprofit and business communities. It’s very different from before the storm, when in both cases the situation was basically static. What’s happening right now is likely to produce a whole range of practical solutions and replicable results that will be useful in the future here and in other places. What we’re already learning from our investment in helping to develop viable solar and home performance businesses is that the first stage is a lot like community organizing.

That’s how I feel especially about the large number of raters who will likely get involved to take advantage of the new HERO program. As a whole, they represent a community we need to cultivate and eventually grow into a robust local industry. What we’re looking for now is organic ways to make that happen. It’s pretty clear that those who succeed in the long run will have to learn to think about developing a business organization in addition to developing technical proficiency.

That’s very clear in the case of solar. The most successful businesses there are run by managers who may possess very little technical proficiency, who have never installed a solar system. In the home performance arena, what’s needed is a multifaceted business model, one that includes ratings and audits but incorporates other kinds of profitable activities, too. Whatever solutions we come up with, though, they have to succeed financially. Because we’re not going to succeed just because it’s the right thing to do.

We’re never going to create a genuinely healthy market here unless we truly understand people’s needs at all levels, offering them solutions for the challenges and obstacles they may encounter, solutions that are genuinely useful to them. Ultimately, if this is going to succeed, it’s going to have be a business that works.

—Forest Bradley-Wright
Senior Program Manager
Alliance for Affordable Energy

Looking for “Pay as You Go” Model

Aware that providership fees will produce a small stream of income, Bradley-Wright also hopes to generate income from other sources, to justify the Alliance’s investment in the project. To that end, he has begun experimenting in the solar roundtable with a sponsorship model, seeking donations from businesses that will deliver a short presentation before the meeting, describing what the business offers. Presenters may remain, if they wish, to participate in the rest of the meeting.

Bradley-Wright has also identified the home energy assessment program run by the Energy Trust of Oregon as a potential model for future development. The Energy Trust program offers homeowners three counseling options. The first option consists of an in-depth home evaluation performed by a BPI-trained and certified contractor, who charges the homeowner directly. The contractor inventories and analyzes all energy-related aspects of the home and issues a detailed energy-consumption report and customized action plan. To help consumers find an appropriate contractor, the Energy Trust maintains a list of contractors who are qualified to do the work and are familiar with the evaluation program.

The Energy Trust also offers a free home-energy review based on a one-hour walk-through. Homeowners are then provided with a prioritized list of improvement recommendations and all available information regarding cash incentives and tax credits. In addition, the reviewer leaves homeowners with up to ten CFLs, high-performance showerheads, and faucet aerators. The Energy Trust also sponsors online programs that analyze home energy usage and give homeowners energy-saving tips based on actual utility bills.

Having the opportunity to identify problems and field-test solutions, Bradley-Wright says, is just one of the many benefits provided by a post-disaster rebuilding scenario.

Roger Hahn is a freelance writer and editor based in New Orleans. His work has appeared in Civil Engineering, Historic Preservation, and Next American City.

For more information:

To learn more about the Louisiana HERO program, go to www.empowerlouisiana.org/HeroProgram.aspx.
To learn more about the New Orleans Alliance for Affordable Energy, go to www.all4energy.org.
To learn more about Wade Byrd’s intensive RESNET rater training camp in central Louisiana, go to http://byrdenergy.com/louisiana-resnet-training-classes/certified-resnet-energy-rater-training.
To learn more about Energy Trust of Oreg on’s home energy assessments, go to http:// energytrust.org/residential/evaluate-your-home.

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