Converging Trends

Posted by Rick Barnett on May 24, 2016
Converging Trends
Rigid insulation on a new building. The lower half of the home shows what an existing house being optimized would look like, prior to re-installing the siding. (Owens Corning)

Environmental Leader recently described legal challenges faced by a business coalition supporting the “Clean Power Plan.” Aside from the Supreme Court’s intervention, the coalition “is fighting more than 20 energy companies, other businesses and industry organizations, and 27 states that filed lawsuits to overturn the EPA rules.”

US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue recently commented about the 166 state and local Chamber affiliates fighting the Clean Power Plan: the groups are "natural allies in the fight because the states will be on the hook for these radical, federally mandated reductions.”

While some utilities disregard the controversy and continue working toward Power Plan goals, reduced emissions resulting from the Plan are difficult to predict.    

Other business organizations are promoting market-based emission reduction.  For example, The American Sustainable Business Council has a campaign promoting a carbon tax as a “market” solution. Although 81 of the largest US companies signed President Obama's “American Business Climate Pledge,” Republicans called Obama’s proposed carbon tax "dead on arrival". The potential for emission reduction from a carbon tax is also difficult to predict.

And despite remarkable global growth, renewables supply only 1.1% of the world’s energy, compared to 60.4% by coal and oil, according to the International Energy Agency (pages 6 and 28). 

With obstacles filling the clean energy landscape, business efforts to create a low-carbon future need to look more closely at the biggest piece of the residential energy pie.  DOE’s 2011 Buildings Energy Data Book indicates that  “space heating and cooling – which combined account for 54% of site energy consumption and 43% of primary energy consumption –drive residential energy demand (page 62).”   

Despite this glaring target, US efficiency programs have done little to curb space conditioning energy, or improve the thermal performance of our country’s 130 million homes.  And no improvement is expected in the near future, according to a recent American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy publication, “New Horizons for Energy Efficiency:  Major Opportunities to Reach Higher Electricity Savings by 2030”.  They credit whole-building retrofits with only 1% of emerging efficiency investments.  The ACEEE report suggests that space conditioning will remain the largest piece of homeowner energy expense.  

Several trends have converged to create an opportunity for utilities to cut space conditioning energy by financing high performance retrofits, for metropolitan or small town homeowners:

  • Utilities are responding to emission constraints and state utility commissions with growing demand-side investment.
  • Existing efficiency programs are not taking steps to reduce the largest portion of residential energy demand, space conditioning.
  • Several home performance scoring systems have been developed, including this from DOE.
  • The insulation industry has created high performance thermal systems.
  • Utilities are pursuing new opportunities to improve service and retain customers.
  • RESNET has connected performance scoring to the energy code, and introduced real estate and appraisal professionals to the value of high performance.
  • Utilities are facing disruptive challenges including renewables, customer retention, power plant closure, and peak overload.
  • Utility-financed residential solar exists at a limited pilot scale, but faces many challenges including unresolved maintenance and liability issues.

These trends elevate the feasibility of a utility-scale program to optimize the thermal performance of customer homes. Homeowners would enjoy greater comfort without new expense, and use the least amount of space conditioning energy. On-bill financing for the retrofit results in a long term customer for the utility. And the value of measured demand reduction would allow utilities to offer optimized retrofits at no new cost to the current or future homeowner. 

Without tax dollars or government agencies, the utility, construction and insulation industries could collaborate to seal our leaky homes. An example of similar private sector conservation can be found in 1980’s recycling. The waste hauling industry adjusted a historical disinterest in conservation and began offering household recycling as a new service for customers.  Without public financing, private industry was able to maintain flow control, create jobs and conserve resources.

As an expanded utility service to residential customers, thermal optimization would give local economies a much-needed jolt. The task may seem large, but the value of greater resilience and fewer emissions would increase over the life of an optimized home.        


Rick BarnettRick Barnett has a B.A. in psychology and an Interdisciplinary Masters in Environmental Management. Before becoming a builder, Rick was involved with recycling, including the initiation of the first campus-wide recycling program in the US, at Oregon State University in 1975.

Rick started Green Builder in 1996, and initiated several public sector green building programs over the next 10 years. As a general contractor, his experience included several rigid-wrapped high performance projects. His current focus is promoting high performance homes. 

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