An Audit That One Can Actually Like

by Richard T. Stuebi

The concept of an “audit” is something that is inherently, well, unsettling. The word itself implies that you might have done something wrong, and someone is coming to catch you and punish you. For sure, no-one wants to face the prospect of an IRS audit.

Of course, that’s not the sole or even main reason that I’ve never undertaken an energy audit for my house. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation to say that I’ve simply been too preoccupied with other matters to go through the effort of finding a qualified firm to perform an energy audit. And, frankly, I had no idea whether an audit would cost $100 (easily acceptable) or $1000 (too much!).

So, it was with a bit of relief actually that a firm called GreenStreet Solutions sent me a mailer offering an energy audit for $199. No longer burdened with finding a firm to do the work, and knowing that the price was one I could afford, I gave them a call to schedule a visit.

I was very pleased. A two-man team from GreenStreet came to my 1978-era house for a 3-hour tour (sing along: “a 3-hour tour”), and found some pretty interesting results. I wasn’t surprised to discover that certain of the walls and ceilings were underinsulated. However, I was shocked to see that the biggest source of thermal leakage was out of my basement, through the front stoop.

Armed with a host of data collected from the building envelope, thermal images from scanning, and my prior year’s gas and electric bills, the GreenStreet team went off to prepare an assessment . A couple weeks later, the lead analyst returned for an evening debrief with me and my wife, handing us a bound report summarizing the findings and suggesting measures to implement.

The results: at 50 Pascals of pressure, 5135 cubic feet of air per minute were leaking through the building shell of my home, relative to a target of 2299 for a reference home of comparable size. To combat this, GreenStreet proposed three packages of solutions — Bronze, Silver and Gold — to reduce the leaks. To my wife and me, the Silver package looked the best — the most bang for the buck — entailing $9738 of outlays to save an estimated $2288 annual heating costs (surprisingly, savings on air conditioning expenses are not calculated), for a projected average payback of 4.3 years.

In addition, GreenStreet provided a bag full of goodies to further help reduce energy. For instance, we were given a Kill-A-Watt meter to measure appliance consumption rates and phantom loads. Though I haven’t yet gone around the house to develop a list, it sounds like a pretty fun project some rainy afternoon.

Also, GreenStreet gave us a bunch of thermal insulating gaskets for outlets and light switches. I installed these the other day, and in removing the covers, it’s really amazing to see how much thermal leakage is likely to occur through these huge uninsulated gaps. Parents: installing these gaskets would be an excellent project to give to your teenager to undertake.

As for implementing the audit results, we were prepared to authorize a go-ahead — until the GreenStreet salesperson noted that a bill was winding its way through Congress to reimburse up to $8000 (with no ceiling on income levels) for weatherization efforts, and since the bill wouldn’t be retroactive, we would be better off waiting for the bill to pass (expected this summer). We thanked him for his divulging this important opportunity, and asked him to have GreenStreet call us when the bill passed.

He further noted that a bill was moving through the Ohio legislature to reimburse the $199 we paid for the energy audit too, and informed us that we would be notified if this were to pass as well.

I was really impressed with the audit by GreenStreet — very professional, and not pushy. The GreenStreet agent noted that their parent company was Vectren (NYSE: VVC) — a gas and electric utility based in Southern Indiana — which leads me to wonder if all energy audits should be performed by companies that have a corporate parent that is a utility possessing sufficient financial wherewithal and expertise on energy-related issues.

However, unless the utility has revenue/profit decoupling mechanisms in place, it’s clear in my mind that an audit can’t effectively be done by the local utility, who may be subject to conflicts of interest by threatening to cannibalizing their core business from reducing energy consumption.

In all respects, my wife and I actually enjoyed this audit, and recommend a similar type of audit for anyone who wants to make their personal contribution to the cleantech challenge.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Behave Yourself!

by Richard T. Stuebi

It’s axiomatic among the cleantech community that energy efficiency represents the cheapest/easiest way to address our energy and environmental challenges. Indeed, as illustrated by some analysis by McKinsey & Company, many energy efficiency measures actually have net negative costs to implement.

So, why is it so damned hard for customers to adopt energy efficiency technologies? Consider the recent article from the Wall Street Journal, profiling the challenges faced in Boulder, Colorado — one of the most environmentally-inclined communities in North America — in encouraging energy efficiency measures. The WSJ article spurred some navel-gazing among the green-conscious Boulder citizenry, as witnessed in this blog post.

One way of looking at this issue is that it is indeed hard to change people’s habits and behaviors, but that eventually people do change. Another way of looking at this issue is that people are economic animals: they do make changes, pretty quickly, like it or not, when something hits their wallets and pocketbooks.

In other words, it’s really pushing water uphill trying to encourage a shift to using less energy, when energy is so bloody cheap for most people. Unless/until energy becomes more expensive (taxes anyone?), the only way to spur many customers to use less energy is to change codes such that inefficient devices — whether they be lightbulbs, refrigerators, air conditioners, TVs or computers — can no longer be bought.

In the absence of price signals that strongly encourage behaviors to reduce energy consumption, restricting what customers can buy is the only brute-force method available that really works. And, as can be seen in our current political environment, many Americans don’t like being strong-armed by their government.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

What’s the Buzz About Clean Tech and Other Green Stuff?

by Marguerite Manteau-Rao

Green or sustainability? Clean tech or environmental conservation? If you want to get a sense for what topics generate the most buzz at any point in time, Nielsen BlogPulse is the place to go:

‘Green’ is a word understood by all. Sustainability is still a concept for the business elite.  

I thought clean tech would have an edge over conservation. Nielsen statistics are proving otherwise. I find it rather encouraging. Note the peak on Earth Day, for conservation. Conservation is still very much associated with big environmental events.

Solar is still generating more buzz, ahead of other clean tech approaches. As more and more of the public discourse shifts towards energy efficiency, it will be interesting to see if it gets reflected in blogging conversations.

Now you play!

Marguerite Manteau-Rao is a green blogger and marketing consultant on sustainability and social media issues. Her blog, La Marguerite, focuses on behavioral solutions to climate change and other global sustainability issues.

In the Dark

by Richard T. Stuebi

As a subsidiary of GE (NYSE: GE), which of course is touting its Ecomagination strategy, NBC Universal declared a Green Week, with the tag-line “Green is Universal”, in which NBC will weave environmental awareness into all its programming this week. All of its programming — including sports.

This made for a very weird half-time show during last night’s Sunday Night Football game (Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles). Instead of highlights from the games played earlier in the day, the studio hosts (Bob Costas, Keith Olbermann, Cris Collinsworth) spent ten minutes huddled around a few flickering candles barely illuminating their faces amidst an otherwise completely dark set.

With this dramatization, NBC claimed to be doing its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by lowering its energy consumption: darkening the set for a few hours otherwise lit would save an amount equal to a typical household’s monthly electricity use.

While laudable in its intent, the dark set instead produced a scene that left me cringing. The hosts giggled like grade-school boys, clearly embarrassed, joking amidst the absurdity of attempting to televise a show in utter darkness. The good intentions of GE/NBC were thereby completely undermined by the snickering of the “talent”.

NBC’s implicit message to the audience was that reducing energy consumption means severely sacrificing commonly-assumed standards of living. Remember Jimmy Carter in his much-ridiculed cardigan sweater, urging all of us in a famous late-1970’s national speech on energy (“Moral Equivalent of War”) to lower our heating thermostats and accept some discomfort so that we didn’t burn so much heating oil? This was worse, much worse. It was as if to say that, to be solid citizens, we need to use fire for lighting. What next, horse-drawn carriages? Through their laughter, the hosts recognized the message they were asked to deliver as ludicrous, completely untenable to a U.S. mass public, and they couldn’t help but distance themselves from NBC’s ill-conceived script.

For U.S. listeners, the conversation regarding energy efficiency needs to be framed in the context of the same (or better) lifestyles with lower energy consumption. A reversion to the Stone Age is simply NOT what the average American will entertain.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.