Out with the old…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Correspondent Brian Rogal is covering the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance conference in Chicago. Click here for a complete archive of his posts.

During the second day’s last plenary session, panelists again hit upon the need to ramp up EE programs. But rather than just speaking in generalities, they focused on one specific type of EE work, namely home retrofits, and outlined several strategies to bring in bigger numbers.

The obstacles can seem tremendous. Chandler von Schrader, an official with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, unveiled a multi-colored map of all the areas which either have an existing, proposed or brand new Home Performance with Energy Star program, which is a joint program of the EPA and the Department of Energy that promotes energy efficiency.

But what makes that map daunting is that all of these areas have a different collection of utilities, manufacturers, retailers and contractors all operating under different sets of rules. “We’ve done a wonderful job of complicating this industry,” von Schrader said.

And the lack of things like a universal work standard tends to drive away the largest, most experienced contractors, who like the certainty provided by uniform rules. “So much (home retrofit) activity is being done by small-time contractors it’s scary,” he said. That’s a concern because the big traditional home improvement firms act as competitors to providers of EE home retrofits, and draw away customers.

Schrader said the Department of Energy is working on some guidelines for standards, and getting them done will improve things. “The big guys should make this a priority,” and when they do, customers should follow.

However, a few other things will need to happen as well. Merrian Fuller from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory told the conference the sobering truth that many potential customers are reluctant to secure loans, that is, to take on more debt, just to retrofit or weatherize their homes. The problem is that many customers only spend about $150 a month on energy, so the savings from a retrofit don’t put enough money in their pocket. A possible solution is to get more sophisticated about marketing efforts “especially in the beginning stages of the program.”

Fuller has done a comprehensive study of these marketing efforts to date. She found that most retrofitters don’t use what marketing experts consider best practices, such as focusing on “early adopters,” those potential customers who want to be on the cutting edge. Other possible strategies include working much harder at identifying those who might want a retrofit for health reasons, to relieve asthma for example.

Figuring out who sits atop a given neighborhood’s social networks, and bringing them aboard might also help, she said, even if energy costs remain a secondary concern. “People are incredibly influenced by those around them. They want to see someone else do it first.”

Photo by Howard Chalkley via Creative Commons