by Cindy Carroll, Unitil
Achieving energy efficiency has been a long-standing goal in the U.S. that historically has received much attention when energy prices are high and less when energy prices are low. Energy efficiency benefits are many and are a vital part of a sustainable, long-term energy policy.
Effective energy efficiency programs contribute to increased energy security and savings, improved customer control and satisfaction, and significant environmental and economic development benefits, according to the National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency co-sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Despite these benefits and the success of energy efficiency programs in some regions of the country, energy efficiency remains critically underutilized in the nations’ energy portfolio,” the plan states.
Unitil, a provider of natural gas and electricity to New England customers, knows the economic and environmental value of energy efficiency programs. The Hampton, N.H.-based company offers its business and residential customers various cost-effective programs and services that simultaneously benefit the environment and provide energy savings to customers.
“Energy efficiency programs make sense on so many levels,” said George Gantz, Unitil senior vice president. “With today’s technologies and the ability to work with contractors and customers who through education and training understand the importance of a whole-house energy approach, it is much easier to implement an efficient energy-saving program. Working in partnership with our customers, we can help them save energy, reduce bills and enjoy added comfort at home.”
In 2009, Unitil launched the New Hampshire Home Performance with Energy Star program with the EPA and DOE, as part of the NH Saves program. The program quickly has become popular among qualified homeowners who each receive a comprehensive energy audit and significant rebates for qualified energy-saving improvements.
Adoption rates for Unitil’s Home Performance with Energy Star program are well above the industry standard. Compared with national energy efficiency program adoption rates of 30-40 percent, some 95 percent of participating Unitil customers have implemented recommended energy efficiency improvements. Unitil Program Manager Keith Freischlag attributes this success to the company’s customer outreach process, educating consumers on home energy use, and its quality contractors who inform customers of home weatherization benefits.
“We help customers understand how their houses use energy and set realistic expectations by identifying the energy savings they can hope to achieve through specific weatherization improvements,” Freischlag said.
Customers must qualify for the Home Performance with Energy Star program by modeling their home with an easy-to-use Home Heating Index (HHI) tool located at http://nhsaves.com. The tool scores the efficiency of customers’ homes on a scale of zero to 15, which represents the total amount of energy used to heat a square foot of living space throughout the heating season. Customers with an HHI greater than eight, along with the interest and ability to have their homes weatherized, typically qualify to participate in the NH Home Performance with Energy Star program. Customers who do not meet this criteria are referred to alternative programs more appropriate to their energy efficiency needs, including the Energy Star lighting or appliance programs.
The NH Home Performance with Energy Star program provides a whole-house assessment conducted by a Building Performance Institute (BPI)-certified energy auditor using advanced modeling software and testing equipment. The assessment measures the tightness of a building shell, tests carbon dioxide levels of combustion and identifies effective insulation values throughout a home.
Energy auditors use thermal-imaging cameras to help identify the performance of a home’s building shell and to spot air leaks and possible moisture problems that cannot be inspected visually. Health and safety are addressed, as well, with combustion appliance tests conducted to confirm no CO<sub>2</sub> is being released and draft tests on heating and hot water systems to ensure gases are being vented appropriately outside a home.
Information collected through a home energy assessment allows auditors to compile a detailed energy model and report to educate customers on specific improvements recommended for their homes along with projected energy and cost savings associated with each improvement. This information prioritizes the weatherization improvements and helps guide customers on selecting improvements based on a payback analysis, Freischlag said.
“We look at the size of the home, as well as type and effective performance of construction materials including insulation, heating systems and building tightness,” he said. “This information is the basis for the weatherization recommendations, energy-savings calculations and payback analyses that our customers need to make well-informed decisions.”
Based on the recommendations implemented, customers could receive a 75 percent rebate up to $4,000 to offset efficiency improvements’ costs.
Hampton homeowners Carole and Scott Filiault participated in the Home Performance with Energy Star program this past winter. Though initially skeptical about the program, the couple noticed immediate energy savings after making many of the recommended improvements.
“We were impressed by the thoroughness of the process, the diligence of the contractor and the quality of the work completed,” Scott Filiault said. “We look forward to seeing how much energy we can save over the course of next winter.”
Unitil employs a statewide pricing model established through a competitive-bid process issued jointly with the other New Hampshire gas and electric utilities. Working together, the New Hampshire utilities ensure their customers are offered the best value for weatherization materials and services. Unlike many state programs that contract with a single vendor, Unitil works directly with multiple contractors to guarantee a fairness that creates economies of scale by working with contractors who serve electric and gas customers and contribute to the development of a pool of New Hampshire-based weatherization businesses.
Contractor Luke Benson of WellHome, an energy efficiency retrofitting provider, has found working with Unitil mutually beneficial. The program’s success can be attributed to the utility’s whole-home approach to energy efficiency, he said.
“The program works because it is holistic and improvements are recommended based upon their cost-effectiveness and projected energy savings that can range from an average of 28 percent to a high of 44 percent,” Benson said.
Unique to WellHome is its Whole-Home Limited Guarantee.
“If after one year, the customer has not seen savings greater than or equal to the predicted savings, we write them a check for the difference,” he said. “It’s how we go from predicted to actual savings.”
Another feature is the Building Performance Institute contractor training program developed by the New Hampshire utilities in collaboration with Manchester Community College. The program offers students and the building trades an opportunity to learn standardized weatherization procedures and to work toward becoming weatherization professionals, Freischlag said.
“The BPI training helps contractors understand the house as a system,” he said. “BPI certification ensures that contractors are knowledgeable about weatherization before they work on customers’ homes.”
Cindy Carroll is director of business and economic development at Unitil Corp. Reach her at email@example.com.
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