Would Homeowners Say "Yes" to Energy Efficiency if it Came with Solar?

Aug. 19, 2014
Solar is experiencing over-the-top popularity among US homeowners; energy efficiency not so much. But what if state programs made solar a subset of energy efficiency? Here’s what three California researchers found.

Credit: Susan Bilo

Solar is experiencing over-the-top popularity among US homeowners; energy efficiency not so much. But what if state programs made solar a subset of energy efficiency?

That’s the recommendation of an intriguing paper released August 19 by the Center for Sustainable Energy.

The California non-profit tried to tease out what it takes to motivate solar customers to pursue energy efficiency.  Homeowners run the risk of buying more solar panels than they need, if they do not make their homes efficient first.

Several state and utility programs think the energy audit is the answer. They require an audit before homeowners can receive incentives. But audits may have limited impact.

Such is the case in San Diego where the researchers studied more than 2,300 residents who participated in the California Solar Initiative rebate program.

Only 30 percent even remembered the audits being done; 42 percent said no audit was done and 28 percent were unsure.  This seems to be a fault of memory, since paperwork was filed with the state verifying the audits.

Even though the audits didn’t make a big impression, the majority (87 percent) of those surveyed did make some sort of energy efficiency improvements. But the upgrades were mostly simple: swapping out light bulbs, fans and shower heads, or buying more efficient appliances. The homeowners tended to forego deeper retrofits. For example, only one in eight pursued duct sealing, although the average California home loses 30 percents of its air conditioning through leaky duct work, the paper said.

Only 30 percent even remembered the audits being done; 42 percent said no audit was done and 28 percent were unsure.

Avoiding grid power

Authors Ria Langheim, Georgina Arreola and Chad Reese then held focus groups to investigate the thoughts and actions of the homeowners more deeply.  They talked to two groups that tend to invest in energy products, what they called ‘leading achievers’ and  ‘practical spenders.’

Leading achievers typically own their homes, earn high incomes, hold advanced degrees and vote for liberals. Environmental concerns motivate them, as does worry about  future generations.

Practical spenders are more politically conservative and pursue energy efficiency to save money and reduce dependence on foreign countries. Their incomes and education levels are slightly lower than the leading achievers.

The researchers found that having solar panels on their roofs did change behavior. The focus group participants reported that they were trying to use no more energy than the solar panels produced;  they didn’t want to buy grid power.

Still most did not complete energy efficiency upgrades in conjunction with their solar installation, even  though they understood the value of doing so. They made no strong mental connection between the solar installation, the audit, and timing of energy efficiency upgrades. “It seems that the requirement was merely a formality in the application process,” the researchers said.

Who’s talking to homeowners?

The authors speculated that solar contractors are not taking the time to educate consumers about the audit.

“The implications of this are potentially large given the scale of savings that could be left on the table when energy efficiency is not addressed
comprehensively before the installation of the PV system,” the paper said.

So what’s to be done? The paper suggests swapping the order of things. Today, the energy efficiency audit is a subset of the solar installation process. Under their proposal, solar becomes a subset of energy efficiency. To get solar incentives, homeowners would sign onto an energy efficiency program. To that end, the paper suggests re-framing the California solar rebate program into a ‘home energy upgrade technology’ program.

Would this work? It makes a lot of sense. Consumers are motivated to pursue solar.  They won’t abandon solar if it is folded into a larger home energy efficiency effort. But they may more seriously embrace energy efficiency. Another benefit: we could see “crossovers of energy efficiency contractors to solar and solar contractors to energy efficiency,” the paper said. Trained in both resources, the contractors are less likely to push solar at the expense of energy efficiency.

Called Energy Efficiency Motivations and Actions of California Solar Homeowners, the paper  is available for free download here.

The paper is part of this year’s Summer Study held by  the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, being held Aug. 17-22 at the Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, Calif.

Find this topic interesting? Join the discussion on our LinkedIn group, Energy Efficiency Markets. Or follow @EfficiencyMkts on Twitter.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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