Blog Archives

The Power of Information: Unleashing Energy Consumption Data

community_mapEncouraging energy efficiency among residents and businesses is hard work, not least because of the absence of accessible and easily understandable information about energy consumption. Most people don’t understand everything on their energy bills, don’t know if they’re using more energy than they should, and have no way to compare their energy use to that of their neighbors. This information is often guarded closely by utilities, presenting energy efficiency advocates with a formidable barrier.

In her thesis, Alexis Howland (MCP ’13) sketches the possibilities afforded by better energy consumption data. She surveyed efforts across the country to share energy efficiency data. Alexis focuses on incorporating these data into mapping applications—which could lay bare the differences in energy consumption among homes and add valuable information to the housing market. These efforts could be combined to allow no-touch energy assessments that offer actionable suggestions for homeowners who want to improve their energy efficiency.

In a survey of five previous attempts at energy mapping, Alexis notes a common theme: the developer’s inability to access or make public energy consumption data at the household level. This, Alexis explains, is due to privacy concerns that have so far prevented such data from being used to its full potential.

Alexis explores ways of unleashing these data. Several cities—including Boston—have recently passed ordinances that require the disclosure of energy consumption data, and the federal government has offered a framework for voluntary energy data disclosure through the Green Button Initiative. While these efforts must overcome serious privacy concerns, they have the potential to make public vital information about the way people and buildings nationwide use energy. Read more about Alexis’ survey of the opportunities for and barriers to energy mapping projects in her thesis.

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Planning Beyond Coal

Our nation’s energy infrastructure is at the beginning stages of a massive transition as we come to terms with and address the implications of our reliance on fossil fuels. The first stage of this transition will be the retirement of AdiNochurmuch of America’s fleet of coal plants, due both to more stringent environmental regulations and the increased competitiveness of natural gas. Beyond environmental and climactic benefits, the shutdown of these plants creates an interesting planning opportunity to consider how lands previously used for energy generation from coal can be redeveloped and put to new uses.
Adi Nochur (MCP ’13) confronts these questions in his thesis. He considers the cases of three Massachusetts coal communities—Salem, Somerset, and Holyoke—that must make decisions about plant shutdown and reuse, with a primary focus on the ways in which the planning process has or hasn’t opened up opportunities for concerned stakeholders and the public to get involved.
There has been little consistently in the ways that Massachusetts towns plan for the transition from coal, Adi finds. Salem has been a leader among the three, as town officials have aggressively considered options for reuse and have given environmental advocates and the public seats at the table. Adi also notes differences in state leadership and the level of funding granted for reuse planning efforts amont the three towns. He presents Chicago as a model for Massachusetts coal communities to follow. Officials there have emphasized stakeholder engagement and strong government leadership in coal plant transition planning.
In general, Adi’s thesis raises questions about the appropriate uses of former coal sites. Often, as will likely be the case in Salem, shuttered coal plants get a second life as natural gas facilities, though this outcome may not be in the best interest of communities that have long dealt with the local health and environmental consequences of fossil fuel energy production. Adi is hopeful that Massachusetts and other states will consider a broader range of ideas and stakeholder views as they make plans for a post-coal energy sector. Read more about Adi’s findings and conclusions in his thesis.

Unlocking Energy Efficiency in Office Buildings

Energy consumption can vary widely among similar office buildings, and most could save 10-20% from low and no cost measures alone. Through her applied research with the Smart Energy Now® pilot program, Elena Alschuler (MCP ’12) analyzed stakeholder dynamics and tested solutions to encourage operational efficiency in office buildings.

Duke Energy’s Smart Energy Now® pilot in Charlotte NC is the first advanced metering and community engagement program to focus exclusively on operational efficiency in office buildings across an entire downtown. During the program design phase in 2011, Elena identified the ways in which building owners, facility staff, occupant organizations and office workers shape energy consumption. She recommended program activities to deliver information feedback, process assistance, and social
endorsement tailored to each stakeholder group.

In 2012, Elena conducted a preliminary evaluation and found that the pilot has been successful in many of its activities, gaining almost 100% owner participating and training over 500 Energy Champions. She also identified important lessons for implementing operational efficiency programs. For example, pledge-and-tracking frameworks establish a clear goal and process, but allow stakeholders to select the energy-saving activities that make sense for them. In addition, support from organizational leaders is essential for efficiency to become part of office worker culture and facility staff activities. Finally, local non-profit and professional organizations can help provide credibility, conduct outreach and deliver program activities.

Check out a recent report Elena wrote for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), which builds on the work she did for her thesis as a DUSP student. Share your thoughts on this topic in the EPP Facebook Group.

A Better Way to “LEED” in Energy Ratings

Energy efficiency measures in residential buildings are some of the lowest-cost means of cutting energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to experts, by 2020, residential buildings will consume 20% of U.S. total energy use – more than the commercial sector – and will contribute 1,350 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) to the U.S.’s annual carbon emissions. Still, despite the fact that building insulation, lighting upgrades, and efficient water heating all have a positive net present value (NPV) per ton of greenhouse gases abated, very few home energy upgrades and retrofits are taking place, as compared with the volume of inefficient housing that remains in the market.

In 2012, Nikhil Nadkarni (MCP ’12) studied four U.S. cities’ attempts to promote energy efficiency through building energy ratings and labeling. He found significant variety in the way these rating systems were utilized. Nikhil analyzes the weaknesses in the current approaches and argues for a new model, using a web-based database that promotes transparency and improved accessibility for consumers and assessors. See his full thesis here.

Share your opinions on this topic in the EPP Facebook Group!

Using Community Meetings to Recruit Households into Home Energy Upgrades

Around 65 million homes in the USA could benefit from comprehensive upgrades to save energy. Serving these homes can decrease emissions, create jobs, stimulate local economies, and improve the health of indoor environments. However, marketing upgrades has proven difficult; households typically do not understand energy saving opportunities, are hesitant to take on financing to realize small net energy savings, and distrust programs and contractors.

Photo credit: PorterSIP (cgulyas2002)

Faced with these challenges, many upgrade program administrators have experimented with marketing upgrades via different community networks, such as neighborhood associations, churches, civil society organizations, common employers, or informal acquaintances. In his Masters thesis, Brendan McEwen (MCP 2012) explores the community based outreach strategies that can realize greater participation in upgrade programs. Brendan’s research suggests that hosting meetings that bring together a group of recruits, past participants, upgrade contractors, and program personnel, is an effective marketing mechanism, capable of providing a rich introduction to the concept of upgrades and fostering a sort of “peer pressure” to sign on for a home energy assessment. Brendan suggests program administrators should tap many different community networks, to recruit households into such meetings. More strategies and lessons from the field can be found in Brendan’s thesis.

Do Renters Miss Out on the Benefits of Energy Efficiency?

Increasing energy efficiency is a popular notion. It garners support from environmentalists to economists to every person who pays a utility bill. But when it comes to retrofits, more homeowners are benefiting from energy efficiency than renters. Patrick Coleman (MCP 2011) thinks this a problem worth looking into.

To do this, Patrick analyzed local city ordinances that aim to enhance the energy efficiency of rental properties in California, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Texas. He found that the barriers to energy efficiency improvements are significant, but the potential in rental housing looms large. The lack of information, fragmentation of housing and energy markets, and misaligned incentives, however, challenge retrofits. Also, the diversity of property owners, from individuals to multinational corporations, presents policymakers and program administrators with varied motivations and interests and makes coordination of resources extremely difficult.

Despite this, Coleman found that well-designed ordinances can 1) establish a minimum standard of energy efficiency in rental properties, 2) enable energy efficiency program administrators to focus their attention beyond basic measures to deeper retrofits, and 3) facilitate the valuation of energy efficiency in housing markets.

Coleman recommends partnerships between local governments, community-based organizations, and utility companies to motivate better energy efficiency in rental units. You can read more by checking out Patrick’s thesis.