Tough Questions for Energy Efficiency Program Managers

Neon Question Mark Gareth Simpson Flickr

Tough Questions.

I had a conversation yesterday with an old friend who has switched jobs and is now heading up a new utility efficiency program. It’s supposed to be cutting edge, if not bleeding edge. They are hoping to drive Comprehensive Home Performance projects, which involve both building shell work and HVAC upgrades. We find they typically run in the $15K-$50K range.

Sadly, it sounded like they were largely going to tread the same tired path, with a few slight twists.  I think he knows that this is a path to failure.

Einstein had two great quotes that apply here:

1. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

2. A problem cannot be solved with the same level of thinking it was created with.

In reflecting on it this morning, I compared Energy Smart Home Performance’s sales process (which is essentially an efficiency program in and of itself, complete with M&V) to what I’ve seen in other programs across the country.

I came up with a list of questions that need to be dealt with before efficiency programs have any real chance of driving a market, rather than holding them back, which is what they have done to date. (Show me one private program, WAP doesn’t count, that has broken 10,000 projects/year.)

  1. Do you believe larger projects have better savings accuracy, precision, and outcomes for all stakeholders? (If not please read this.)
  2. What programs using “one call close” have consistently sold large comprehensive projects with successful outcomes for consumers?
  3. What one call close programs for comprehensive projects have closing ratios from lead to project anywhere near 50%?
  4. What one call close programs for comprehensive projects have mean project size anywhere near $15,000?
  5. How will you build enough trust with homeowners so they will buy a $15K+ job they didn’t know they needed – at the very first meeting?
  6. How will you manage expectations in one call so homeowners understand what to expect from these complex projects, and not have unreasonable expectations of outcomes?
  7. How will you educate the consumer in one call to overcome the flat earth ‘common sense’ that exists in the marketplace and contradicts everything you are telling them? (Windows are the first thing to do, R-value is most important, but I have lots of insulation, aren’t gas water heaters much more efficient, etc.)
  8. How will you design to different client budgets? Iteratively and thoughtfully, or haphazardly?
  9. Will you be willing to do projects small enough that results are unlikely? How will you handle potential bad PR from this?
  10. How will you handle different client concerns – IAQ, asthma, icicles, temperature imbalances, etc? Will upgrade designs take them into account?
  11. If improvement designs/plans are somewhat boilerplate, how often are they likely to solve specific client concerns?
  12. If improvement designs/plans are boilerplate, how open to collaborative discussion with homeowners will the program be?
  13. What if homeowners don’t like the improvement design? How will you get over that hurdle?
  14. If collaborative design and discussion is limited, how likely is homeowner buy-in?
  15. Can one person do excellent Home Performance design (the advocate), or is it better with a team? Our model uses a team approach.
  16. How will you handle the broader market with many housing types and challenges in the future?
  17. Could focusing on one housing type make the program design myopic and difficult to pivot in the future? Is it fair to all consumers? Is limiting opportunities wise?
  18. How is the advocate model, paid for by a program, scalable?
  19. Will the life of advocates be extremely fulfilling, so that you can grow their ranks quickly with word of mouth? If that happens, how can you fund it? If not, how will you staff it?
  20. How many projects can one advocate start and run all the way through the process without failure? Is this better done with a team and handoffs?
  21. How will actual performance be measured from the projects, meaning actual energy use reduction? Is it expensive? Is it scalable?
  22. How will you know which contractors are performing more effective work than others? Should consumers be aware of these differences?
  23. If you are aware of certain contractors performing better than others, but you don’t make consumers aware, are you complicit in promoting shoddy work?
  24. If contractors are not aware of how their performance stacks up, are they likely to improve? If that information is made public, are they more likely to improve?
  25. Will follow up be done with clients to determine if their goals were met? If they were not, are there additional plans for further upgrades, or is the program likely to be blamed for failure?
  26. Will follow up be done to make adjustments to occupant behavior while operating houses which can lead to greater energy use reductions (Continuous commissioning – i.e. with heat pumps don’t use setback).
  27. Will you have any way to see occupant behavior and separate out behavior from base building energy usage?
  28. How will you handle quality control of customer interaction, job implementation, measurement of outcomes, etc? (We have this baked in to our process.)
  29. Will blower door testing be done during the project execution, or just before and after?
  30. If there is methodology for native QC during the work? If not, how will contractors discover commonly overlooked errors and learn to improve their methods? If methods aren’t improved, how will you be able to scale back program quality control as job counts increase?
  31. If this program design fails, how will your organization look? Is it likely to be used as a template for the future? Or a template for failure? Is that helpful politically at national scale?
  32. If this program design fails, will it burn enough goodwill with the public and contractors to make it difficult to implement a new program design in 1-3 years?
  33. If this program design fails, could it cause irreparable damage to the Home Performance industry?
  34. Do we have the time to waste? How is this program design different enough from what is being done to have a good possibility of success?
  35. What is the cost per saved Negawatt-hour or reduced peak kilowatt hour, with all program costs included? How does this compare to other program designs?
  36. Is it scalable to 10,000, 100,000, or 1 million homes? Can programs remain involved at that scale? With “One Knob” it scales, and programs can participate all the way, you aren’t slitting your own throat.

These questions are very tough, and on purpose.

They highlight problems that seem endemic in HP program design.

The process Energy Smart Home Performance has developed handles all of these with very satisfactory answers.

Speaking of satisfying, I’ve sold a lot of things in my life, and I have to say this is BY FAR my favorite sales process. The work is extremely satisfying. It’s challenging. It’s fun. I have real relationships with clients. Real good is getting done. I’m a rainmaker for contractors – food is going on tables, including my own.  And, I believe it to be scalable.

Oh, and all those questions that are really problems above? Taken care of. Baked in.

Can we PLEASE stop doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results? Contractors don’t get paid for that crap. Homeowners don’t get solutions. An industry stays down.  In the meantime, I’ll keep tooling away here in Cleveland doing what bumblebees do: flying. I’ll scale my own business. But boy, I’d rather see a revolution in the marketplace, started here.

It’s time for a revolution, folks. Answer those questions honestly, see what it shakes loose. And leave a comment about them below.


Related Articles:

Why Aren’t There More Home Performance Contractors?

Reflecting on Integrity, Opportunity, and Process in Home Performance

Caught Red Handed: Program Abuse

Motivating Contractors in Energy Efficiency Programs


Image Credit: Gareth Simpson on Flickr, Creative Commons