By Nishaant Sangaavi
Which takes more effort, altering a people’s conservation habits or altering the buildings they occupy? Considering how long the average New Year’s resolution lasts, it’s safe to assume that installing the latest energy-saving application may be a lot easier. In fact, we have the data to back this up.
Building retrofits can unlock energy savings of 60 percent, giving them the power to fundamentally impact the way we consume energy. However, deep energy retrofits often require structural upgrades, which are often complicated to understand and expensive to implement. As a result, people tend to shy away from these bold actions, preferring to opt for low- or no-touch behavioral recommendations. These small, incremental improvements only produce energy savings of between two to seven percent; they also require us to focus on changing the way we live in our homes. The smarter alternative is having our homes operate better, become healthier environments, and give us the power to go well beyond single-digit energy savings.
While structural energy efficiency upgrades are more expensive to implement, they last for the life of the building and continue to provide energy savings regardless of a change in occupants or their behavior. Behavioral programs, in contrast, require the active participation of homeowners in maintaining appliances and monitoring equipment, and can be rendered ineffective if customers become less engaged over time. The result? Behavioral upgrades such as smart meters and thermostats often lack longevity. For example, in a study on smart meter adoption, researchers found that households who implemented smart meters produced non-significant energy savings: -0.04KWh to -0.15KWh per month. To make real progress in reducing energy consumption, utilities and other administrators must shift gears and focus on innovative ways (PACE, financing, labelling) to support consumers participation in structural energy efficiency upgrades. These upgrades stand the test of time. They last as long as the building stock, and deliver consistent, substantial energy savings regardless of who lives in the building.
One major barrier in the delivery of retrofits and structural energy efficiency upgrades has been scalability. Often, the programs that support deep retrofit upgrades require on-site visits from certified auditors, who must be compensated for their time and expertise. On-site auditors also rely on coordinating and managing multiple contractors and vendors, and measuring and verifying several types of results. This data collection process can be laborious and costly, and doesn’t even include the scheduling or costs required for the project work based on the eventual retrofit itself. From the audit alone, the desks of program managers and customer service representatives pile up with applications and administrative paperwork required to manage multiple quotes, invoices, and vendor and customer inquiries. All of this can cause delays, negatively impacting the customer experience and ultimately, deterring participation. Utilities and other Program Administrators may offer rebates and other incentives to offset the costs of structural energy efficiency recommendations, which sometimes works. But not often enough.
Fortunately, this can be a problem of the past.
Two main barriers prevent uptake of structural energy efficiency: clear cost-benefit analyses for customers, and the overall price tag for the consumer and utility provider. Technology -- particularly machine learning and AI -- eliminates these problems. We no longer have to struggle with accurately conveying the return on investment of structural efficiency, or the cost-burden borne by utilities to administer the programs. The innovative data science we’ve become accustomed to utilizing in almost every other sector can also be leveraged by utilities to deliver modern day programs, and make deep energy retrofits more accessible and compelling.
Today, technology is revolutionizing the ability to identify deep retrofit opportunities, and to work hand-in-hand with auditors, vendors, and stakeholders to deliver those opportunities at scale. Using a data-driven approach, customers with the most need for deep retrofits can be identified and triaged accordingly. Policy makers are also beginning to understand this: In his campaign, President Elect Biden called for a $2-trillion, four-year investment in climate-related projects, including the ambitious target of retrofitting four million buildings. Through technology we can increase retrofit timelines, improve the customer experience, and maximize energy efficiency program dollars. This will ensure that we meet our ambitious North American net-zero and climate change commitments.
Nishaant Sangaavi is the Co-Founder and CEO of EnergyX Solutions, a SaaS start-up company in the cleantech sector.
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