NYSERDA MPP and Diminishing Returns

The NYSERDA Multi-Family Performance Program, aka the  NYSERDA MPP, is an ostrich approach to the problem of diminishing returns on energy efficiency spending; it deals with an investment problem by sticking its head in the sand. To put it a different way, when it comes to a traffic light, which is red, and then knocks out the light and proceeds through the intersection. Specifically, the problem is the diminishing returns from investing in energy efficiency measures, and the designers of this program adjusted the program so this problem does not get in the way.

Energy efficiency done serially

Diminishing Returns Example:

  1. Your initial consumption was 100, let’s assume you had 4 options, and you prioritize.
  2. Your first “investment” of $5,000 produced a 10% reduction. Your base is now 90. You paid $555 for every percentage point reduction. Payback was less than a year.
  3. The next “investment” of $25,000 produced a further 10% reduction but now off a base of 90, so the combined result is a 19% reduction in consumption, and your base is now 81. You paid $2,500 for every percentage point reduction. Payback was about 3 years.
  4. The third “investment” of $35,000 also produced a 10% reduction on the remaining 81, or 8.1% off the original number, and your new base is 72.90, and you achieved a total “savings” of 27.1%. You paid $4,321 per percentage point reduction. Payback was 4 years.
  5. The next best option is $55,000 also producing a 10% reduction, but now on a base of 72.90, for a return of 7.3% savings off the original, or $7,534 per percentage point reduction, and it is not worth doing, so we leave well enough alone. Don’t even ask the payback.

Note, some smart fools could try to change the order, and do #5 first, and then #2 might not look so bad. Is that a solution? Watch how NYSERDA solves this conundrum:

NYSERDA MPP: Obfuscating diminishing returns

The MPP program and anything designed like it–and the model is fairly common– “solves” this problem by shuffling it under the rug, namely it stipulates an overall target, of say 30% (the program targets 15% or better with higher incentives with subsequent levels of achievement). In other words the various subsidies are used to overcome the issue of diminishing returns to the building, and incentivize the owner to do what’s good for the utility, never mind if it’s good for asset appreciation of the building.

To go back to the prior example, the NYSERDA MPP model works with an aggregate savings, and an overall savings target, and incentives to make sure that 5th project gets done to get the property to over 30%. The bundled approach obfuscates the problem of diminishing returns. The incentives serve to disguise that the 5th one is not economical.  The thinking behind it is very evidently to incentivize owners to do what’s good for utilities (and equipment manufacturers).

Renewables versus energy efficiency

The Energy Efficiency Merry Go-round
The Energy Efficiency Merry Go-round

With the NYSERDA MPP, you cannot come back for ten years. In the meantime they pray that some other innovation comes along for even more “efficiency.” However the conundrum of diminishing returns will be even greater, for after you once upgraded your boiler from the old clunker that was 50-60% efficient, to one that was 95% efficient, what are you going to do? Go to 96% efficiency? No, unless it blows up you’re not going to replace it.

In short the problem never gets any better, and what you should have done was to figure out how to get off the merry go-round. If only in one part you were able to switch to renewables economically, you’d be ahead of the game. In an apartment building or a residence the obvious candidate is geothermal hot water, followed by total geothermal HVAC. Solar thermal is next in line.

Make sure you evaluate the renewable options in the context of a 30 year capital budget, and pre plan every next step, so that you pre-engineer for subsequent expansion. Depending on the nature of your financing, You may do a total renewable retrofit in one go, or incrementally over as many as 10 years. Notice that with a renewable retrofit, you usually enjoy compound returns from different project phases.

Investment implication of diminishing returns

Directly relevant observations from this problem are:

  1. The NYSERDA MPP should serve only as a cheat-sheet to see if you can qualify for the incentives and the subsidized financing, but you need to do a proper capital budget first, and if the renewable options work in your building, you will wildly exceed NYSERDA’s targets. Most consultants in the area come from the standpoint of energy efficiency, and they do not represent the interest of capital formation in your building, but they work for the benefit of the utilities and the equipment providers.
  2. Clearly, either investing or underwriting on the basis of energy efficiency or energy savings is a dicey business proposition, as a 30% improvement is easily wiped out in one or two energy price hikes.
  3. In general the framework of the NYSERDA MPP is not about investing at all but about operational savings, and inappropriately uses long-term money for short-term fixes, thus potentially worsening the financial stability of buildings. Banks and PACE bonds both are missing the mark here with financial solutions. The difference between the Titanic sinking in 5 or 10 minutes does not an investment make.
  4. Conversely, only investment in renewable solutions effectively can significantly boost the capital value of the building permanently, and could legitimately qualify for long-term financing.

The framework of the NYSERDA MPP and energy efficiency in general combined with using payback as a criteria, means that owners are doing the minimum to get the NYSERDA subsidies, which is even against their own long-term interest, if there is a viable renewable energy retrofit available for their buildings. To put it differently, because the tabular presentation of an aggregate result generally is mistaken for a financial model, buildings are in many cases making sub-optimal decisions with it, and the presentation hides the diminishing returns. Nobody in their right mind would invest in a sinking ship, just to delay the speed with which it’s sinking.

Conclusion

The NYSERDA MPP is regressive, and mostly inappropriately used to substitute for a capital budget for energy retrofits. By doing so renewable energy options are sacrificed to energy efficiency, and there are no follow-on investments because of diminishing returns.