Recently I explored the EPA’s Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick to see if it could help some people get a handle on their home energy problems, and the conclusion is it offers a few useful features, but mostly it is detrimental to your financial health. In some ways it really is worse than useless, for financially it will with certainty steer people completely wrong.
Home Energy Yardstick will give you some useful information, by showing you where your home is on a relative scale of energy efficiency, and therefore the potential for improvement. It might give you some ideas of what to look for, but it does nothing to help you sort through the economic priorities of how to create an optimal energy retrofit for your property. That failure sets people up to go about upgrading their property in totally helter-skelter fashion, and lose tons of money in the process.
One of the periodic criticisms of the Energy Star® program has been that it’s being abused by vendors, by misreporting the performance of products in order to get the qualification. That is bad enough, but the Home Energy Yardstick program systematically steers people the wrong way, and lacks critically important features that could make it useful, specifically:
- It focuses on energy efficiency, which tends to lead to a decision path of least cost incremental energy savings, which produces diminishing returns and is a financial death trap.
- It focuses on widgets, not on plans, and it focuses on costs, not value.
- It does not capture the holistic, “systems” view of the problem and the potential solutions. The problem and the solution are 4-dimensional, not three. It should be mandatory first to create a 30 year NPV calculation to analyze the value of various energy improvements from an investment standpoint.
The unintended consequence of the model that this program effectively fosters an unwitting collusion of equipment vendors, energy companies and finance companies, all using this information against property owners, and in the process they are stripping equity from property owners, by ensuring completely suboptimal outcomes from an energy and environmental standpoint. If guaranteed failure were the mission, this would be the way to do it.
Energy Star is a sort of “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval for a sales program of any number of energy efficiency products and services that provide partial “solutions” but never add up to a solution for the real problem, except they’ll keep the property owner paying forever, and allow politicians to always claim progress, while they can rest comfortably in the knowledge that we’ll never get there, so next year they can still claim the same thing, ad infinitum, while consumer spend themselves silly on “Energy Star” products. Energy efficiency is one of those feel good ideas that is accepted without further examination, but falls apart if you ever take a serious look at it, for it makes the problem worse, not better.
Widgets over systems
By focusing on widgets over systems and plans, the illusion is created that you can just “buy” energy efficiency on an incremental basis, as an add-on, without any plan. You give daddy an Energy Star rated shaver for Xmas, and ma gets an energy star rated hair dryer, and soon all will be well, except it does not work that way.
As in any crime, you look for means, opportunity and motive, and in this case, various vendors of energy efficiency related products and services need a gullible public that keeps on buying their bunkum. Energy companies use incentives to retain customers in order to serve their shareholders well. Finance companies live from commissions on the loans they write, so more sales is better, never mind if it makes financial sense for the property owners. Meanwhile, mathematically energy efficiency is a death trap because of diminishing returns.
The only thing that makes sense from an investment point of view, and needs to have priority in any retrofit plan is maximal Site Derived Renewable Energy (SDRE). SDRE alone materially reduces GHG-emissions, and adds value if it can be financed from energy savings well within its economic life, so that the property owner (investor) enjoys the benefit of a long tail of no energy bills.
Your Energy Star credit card
Various supposedly “green” finance programs make things worse. They propose typically “self-liquidating” financing, preferably with “no money down,” to lure you in. The vendors of efficiency equipment have refined their marketing pitches to a fine art, to focus on sales that are easy and frictionless, and can be justified by “energy savings,”
so they pick high value projects first. “Self-liquidating” and “zero money down,” are the catch phrases, which should warn you of incoming torpedoes.
PACE financing is still in some sort of limbo, and it should be as long as it is abused for the purpose of financing energy efficiency, if far more valuable SDRE projects are available.
Your energy company to the rescue
It is in the nature of energy companies that they make money by selling more energy, To them “energy efficiency” is something that helps them retain customers, moreover our society seems to tolerate a “greenwash,” as if “energy efficiency” of a fossil fuel system is “green,” even though the opposite is true. Where is the FTC when you need them? Many if not most energy companies have programs to help their customers become more energy-efficient, and energy providers are happy to offer you financial incentives, in order to retain you as a customer longer.
One of the more hopeful initiatives is the enabling of co-investments of energy companies with customers, which could help with SDRE projects. When done wisely, energy companies can make a return two ways: in financial terms, and in improved utilization of their assets. In NY the public service commission is now looking into this under the REV initiative. That double payoff should facilitate a reasonable deal being offered to consumers.
Where’s the plan?
A building, a home, any property is a system, and moreover it is a four-dimensional system – it lives for decades. It contains mechanical systems that may need replacing at several points during its life span. Roofs may need to be replaced, windows added, and siding replaced, insulation added, etc.
Only renewable energy (SDRE) will materially reduce GHG-emissions, but it will also replace energy bills… it will move energy from liabilities to assets, and in many, many cases you will end up with a capital improvement that is paid for in under 10 years, but eliminates a big portion of your energy bills for 30 years (or more).
Thus there are two dimensions to an energy plan for a property:
- one is about the source of the energy, which is a make or buy decision, i.e. generate your own energy with SDRE, or buy your energy (electric, gas, oil).
- the second part is about passive measures, and energy efficiency. It should be noted that many decisions in this area will be different if you use more SDRE vs. fossil fuels. The fossil fuel path and the SDRE path are not interchangeable, which makes it imperative to plan ahead, lest you design yourself into a corner.
In short, a long-term energy plan is needed for two reasons, one because there are engineering interdependencies, that will impact on your decisions, and two is to truly understand the economic value you are creating on a life-cycle basis. These decisions have an effect for sometimes 20-30 years, and ultimately the life of the property. That tankless hot water heater may be a great idea if your only option is heating with oil, but if you can do geothermal or solar thermal, you need a domestic hot water store to harvest energy, and that same tankless hot water heater would be a horrible waste of money.
The emperor’s new clothes, energy efficiency?
The pursuit of “energy efficiency” means that you do not think about the long-term energy strategy for your property, but you plunge in and start making what you already have more efficient, which means you may be throwing good money after bad, if in fact there were economical options of switching a good part of your energy requirements to renewable on-site generation.
In principle, if this approach were valid, you would proceed in the way of least cost/most benefit, and simply do the highest return projects first. This fails because of diminishing returns, and it fails again, because you may be designing yourself into a corner if you lock yourself out of some of the most valuable projects, but don’t realize it, because you started from the wrong premise and without a plan.
Whole house, holistic energy planning
When you start looking at your property as a system, and start looking at the long-term issue of energy, your first stop should be a financial model of the situation, for the default model should be that you want to switch to renewables as much as possible, while financing it with the energy costs you displace, and helped with any applicable incentives, tax abatements, etc.
A good energy audit will give you your options, and the Home Energy Yard Stick may give you a hint for where to look. However, you don’t want to fall prey to the vendors who will all pitch you on their systems, and never do you want to get yourself locked in to any vendor just because they do a “free” energy audit.
The basic framework becomes how to add the most value to your property. This is very different from the lowest cost approach of energy efficiency. The long-term value of your property should guide your decisions.
Conclusion: SDRE should come first
Energy Efficiency does not exist in isolation, but only in the context of the chosen generating technology: fossil fuels or on-site renewable energy, and the Home Energy Yardstick does not help sorting this out, which can lead to costly mistakes.
SDRE is first priority when we pursue property value adding strategies, energy efficiency is only complementary, and the Energy Star rating system detract the attention to components instead of the whole property.