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Clean Energy / News & Views / Expanding program measures energy efficiency of homes

Expanding program measures energy efficiency of homes

Home Energy Score is like an MPG rating for buildings

Efficiency First | June 28, 2013 | By Zoë McAlear

About the Author

Zoë McAlear is an intern at the Michigan Land Use Institute in the Communications department. She can be reached at zoe@mlui.org

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Gary Bazzett, of James Anderson Builders, conducts a home energy assessment as part of the successful TC Saves program. Similar assessments could be used to determine a Home Energy Score.

Most people stop and think about the miles per gallon rating before buying a car, but don’t consider the “energy mileage” they get from their homes.

Federal officials are now launching a program that analyzes that “energy mileage” to provide owners with more knowledge about their homes. The program, which is in its initial stage, could be coming to Traverse City.  

Our homes use a large amount of energy—for lighting, heating, cooling, and most appliances. Statistics show that most homeowners are paying more than they should for their energy simply because they waste a lot of it.

It’s becoming more important to consider the efficiency of our homes as energy prices rise and people become more conscious of how their energy choices affect their household budgets and the environment.

Now the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., is increasing its commitment to energy efficiency projects with a new initiative, the Home Energy Score program. The HES program is spreading to Michigan, and Traverse City could find itself part of a federal pilot program that could help homeowners here better understand and manage their energy use.

Michigan Energy Options, an East Lansing-based nonprofit that promotes energy conservation through efficiency programs, is a partner organization in the DOE program and is looking to bring it to other Michigan communities.

The idea is to make Michigan a leader in building efficiency by providing homeowners with much more knowledge about their house’s “energy mileage” than they otherwise would have, in the hopes that it will inspire them to make energy efficiency improvements.  

A successful HES program would not only help homeowners; it would also help the country, since energy usage in residential buildings accounts for 22 percent of total energy consumption in the United States, according to the DOE.  

John Kinch, the executive director of Michigan Energy Options, noted, “[all U.S.] buildings consume 41 percent of energy available while transportation [consumes] only 28 percent.” Understanding this, it seems odd that the United States has national efficiency standards for cars, and not for buildings, even though buildings consume a greater percentage of energy.

 “We stand to have big energy efficiency wins if we focused on buildings,” Kinch said.

“It’s the enlightened thing to do,” added Skip Pruss, an energy policy expert and principal of 5 Lakes Energy, a Michigan-based clean energy consulting firm.

How HES Works

The Home Energy Score program attaches an energy efficiency rating to homes, as an MPG rating does to cars, and acts as a national standard. The DOE has established pilot programs all over the country by building partnerships with local organizations. Each pilot program seeks out at least 200 homes to provide a test base.

These homes are analyzed by Home Energy Score Qualified Assessors, priced at $100-$150 by MEO unless combined with another of their programs, who complete a walk-through of the home and take note of 40 different data points. They look at insulation in the attic and walls, characteristics of the windows, and details about the heating, cooling, and hot water systems.

The assessors then hold certain variables constant, such as the thermostat settings and appliance usage, in order to generate a score that allows for comparison of homes on an equal basis without taking into account the actions of the homeowner.

When an energy audit is completed, the homeowner is provided with direct, easy-to-understand knowledge. They are given a score from 1-10 that allows them to see how their home compares to similar homes around the country. They also receive a list of potential improvements to show them what they would need to do to improve their score and how it would benefit them on a yearly basis.

Earlier this year, Michigan Energy Options began acquiring energy-use data from homes in the East Lansing area. They are also hoping to conduct pilots elsewhere, such as in Marquette, where their other office is based, and in Traverse City.

MEO wants to complete their 200-home project by the end of the year and wants to spread into these additional communities in order to make that possible. They already have trained assessors and know-how for the program, but they need additional homes to make their pilot program a success.

The Possibility of Traverse City

Conversations are ongoing in the Traverse City area regarding energy efficiency. Many of those connected to the movement are starting to talk about the impact that a Home Energy Score program could have in the region.

Kim Pontius, executive vice president of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors, imagines the HES program could “piggyback on something like TC Saves” – Traverse City’s recently concluded, highly successful home energy efficiency program.

The TC Saves program showed that Traverse City is ready to strive towards energy efficiency. More than 20 percent of eligible, owner-occupied homes in Traverse City participated in the program, showing that there is clearly a demand to understand the energy usage of our homes. 

Underscoring that point, Jessica Wheaton, marketing and community relations coordinator for Traverse City Light & Power, said customers “over-subscribe programs” that relate to energy efficiency because there is such a demand for them.

“Traverse City, as a whole, has been very interested in energy efficiency for a long time,” she said.

“If there’s going to be a place where we can pilot a home labeling program, it’s the Traverse City area,” Pruss said. This is partially due to the “remarkable consensus among diverse constituencies” since Traverse City is lucky to have a realtors association, home builders association, contractors, and public officials that believe a Home Energy Score program could be beneficial to the community.

According to Kim Pontius, “first we have to get the usage down and the best way to do that is through conservation”.

The Home Energy Score program could be an important step on that path.  

The Benefits for Traverse City

Like the TC Saves program before it, a Home Energy Score program in Traverse City could create more jobs, keep more energy dollars in the local economy, and help to keep our environmental impacts smaller.

There could be other economic benefits, as well. Traverse City would experience an improvement in home values and prices, while individual homeowners who participate in the program and commit to energy improvements would see savings in their home energy budgets.

Kinch is confident that the program could accelerate energy efficiency in Traverse City.

“You understand how your home is performing, not in isolation, not just as itself, but how it’s performing compared to others,” says John Kinch, “and I think that’s a very powerful motivator for people to make change.”

“We see a potential for the Home Energy Score to help drive more people to make improvements to their homes,” he said.

The HES program also would allow homeowners to include the energy improvements they’ve made when valuing their home and improve real estate values throughout Traverse City. Pontius thinks it would give Traverse City a “competitive edge” that could help to attract new businesses.

“I see it being successful everywhere. I see it being successful early in our state and in Traverse City,” says Kinch, “I think Traverse City is an ideal place to run a Home Energy Score program.”

Zoë McAlear is an intern at the Michigan Land Use Institute in the Communications department. She can be reached at zoe@mlui.org

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