Virtual chat graphic
(Image credit: Center for Energy and Environment)

Energy efficiency experts from the Minnesota-based nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) have been making house calls around the state over the past decade, looking for opportunities to lower residents’ energy bills and reduce their carbon footprint while making their homes more comfortable.

The group’s “Home Energy Squad” typically spends several hours with each customer, completing basic retrofits and installations – weatherstripping doors, switching light bulbs to LEDs, and swapping old faucets to low-flow models, for example. It also prepares a customized report providing information about more in-depth opportunities to save energy, such as hiring a contractor to add insulation or replace heating or air-conditioning systems.

Finding growing popularity in recent years, the group served almost 8,500 customers in 2019; for 2020, it set a target of 10,000. But given the COVID-19 pandemic, this goal looks increasingly out of reach. With many practicing social distancing, residential energy efficiency visits in Minnesota, as around the world, have fallen dramatically. “Our last day of in-field operations was March 18,” said Becky Olson, who leads CEE residential programs.

17% of nation’s energy efficiency workers lost work in March and April

Across the nation, the energy efficiency sector has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. A report commissioned by advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) found that more than 400,000 energy efficiency workers lost their jobs in March and April – approximately 10 times the number of people employed in the U.S. coal industry.

This has significant implications for the climate. Buildings are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions; reducing the amount of energy they use for heating, cooling, lighting, and other services would go a long way toward meeting mitigation goals. In a recent report, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimated that energy efficiency could bring the U.S. halfway to meeting its climate targets. Retrofitting homes, schools, offices, and other structures to cut power use is an important part of this effort.

“Over 25% of the savings opportunity is in existing buildings and homes,” said Jennifer Amann, who directs the council’s buildings program. “We see home retrofits as a really important strategy for getting these savings. And beyond just energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions over the long term, retrofits help people reduce their utility bills in the near term, and also make their homes healthier and more resilient as we face changing weather patterns and other disruptions associated with climate change.”

Going virtual

While the coronavirus pandemic has brought much of this work to a halt, there are signs of hope. In Minnesota, the Home Energy Squad has begun to make house calls once more – only this time, through the safety of a computer screen.

Taking the program virtual wasn’t a new idea. CEE had already been discussing moving some of its services online in order to reduce costs. But the coronavirus brought new urgency to the effort, as the threat of lowered revenues and job cuts loomed.

To jumpstart the virtual program, Olson brought field staff together to brainstorm ideas for online visits, then worked with them to conduct trial runs with friends and family members, refining their protocols based on lessons learned. The center then submitted the new program for review by the funders, utilities CenterPoint Energy, and Xcel Energy, and by state regulators. (CEE delivers energy efficiency services on behalf of these utilities as part of a broader suite of activities aimed at optimizing energy use for improved environmental and economic outcomes in the region; in addition to investor-funded utilities such as CenterPoint Energy and Xcel Energy, its partners span the governmental, nonprofit, business, and higher education sectors.)

After securing the necessary approvals, Olson’s team rolled out the new program only two and a half weeks after it was first proposed.

To prepare for the visits, which CEE offers free of charge, customers fill out a questionnaire informing assessors of their energy-related concerns and priorities. Each online energy efficiency assessment takes approximately an hour and includes a virtual walk-through of the home. Afterwards, CEE staff send residents a customized report with a list of recommendations for saving energy. These may range from simple fixes that homeowners or renters can do themselves – adjusting thermostat settings and changing furnace filters, for example – to larger projects that require hiring a contractor.

The team’s advice closely mirrors that provided after physical visits, but with some important differences, Olson wrote in an email. “For example, thermostat setting adjustment recommendations are typically based on reducing the temperature during times away from home. During shelter-in-place scenarios, we focus more on nighttime setbacks, because people are in their homes most of the day. Additionally, for the virtual visits, we have more broad recommendations for insulation and air sealing as likely projects for customers to consider, versus giving a detailed bid for that project.”

(Image credit: Center for Energy and Environment)

According to Todd Berreman, the director of energy efficiency at CenterPoint Energy, virtual visits are a good way for utilities to help people lower their bills at a time of economic stress. “Obviously, their energy bills may increase because they have a whole family at home 24/7, so we wanted to give them some options and opportunities to still save energy.”

The program also benefits CenterPoint Energy in terms of both public relations and regulatory compliance. Like many states, Minnesota requires utilities to reach certain energy conservation targets each year. To hit its numbers, CenterPoint casts a wide net in helping its customers make their buildings more efficient, Berreman said. But the residential market, while important to overall energy savings, can be difficult. “We get less energy savings per building than we would in a large office building or an industrial plant,” he said. It’s therefore in the utility’s interest to continue working with as many residential customers as possible during the pandemic.

Suiting up for house calls

While other energy efficiency service providers around the country are switching to virtual visits, not all physical house calls have stopped. One contractor in Phoenix, Arizona Energy Efficient Home, has continued to send teams to customers’ homes over the past few months.

“We as a business really need to keep the cash flow moving to survive,” said the company’s owner, Jonathan Waterworth. And although many customers have canceled appointments, others have been ready to move ahead with energy efficiency work. “We’ve had some people that didn’t really fully buy into the whole COVID thing, so they weren’t that concerned about having people in their house. So we were willing to satisfy their desire to have their house inspected.”

In-home workers
(Photo credit: Arizona Energy Efficient Home)

Waterworth says he saw a spike in interest in April, when an unseasonal heat wave sent temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. With many people working from home for the first time, a number of his customers have found that their homes are excessively hot during daytime hours. The heat, combined with a relatively low number of coronavirus cases in the region, has made them eager to complete home repairs as soon as possible, he said.

Waterworth said Arizona Energy Efficient Home has substantially altered its procedures to reduce the risk of contagion. To reduce the amount of time its staff spends in customers’ houses, and to avoid the potential of airborne contaminants circulating through the space, it’s forgoing the standard blower door test, which kicks up air inside the house to enable measurements of energy leakage. Employees take their temperature prior to each visit; while on calls, they wear full protective gear, wipe down surfaces they come in contact with, and minimize the time they spend in inhabited areas (e.g., areas other than crawl spaces and attics). Although Arizona “reopened” on May 15, the company says it intends to continue taking these precautionary measures.

Waterworth believes virtual visits have relatively limited potential in the residential energy efficiency sector. “Anyone who knows building science knows that there’s no replacement of a person actually physically going to the property,” he said, partially because most inefficiencies occur in spaces that residents can’t easily access. “If you really want to get to the real problems, you have to have a physical inspection.”

Providing value for residents

But in Minnesota, CEE says it is possible to deliver value to customers through virtual visits. Its online program was designed to give customers a strong incentive to participate, Olson said. “We wanted to make sure that we collected enough data on opportunities for direct installs [of LED light bulbs or weatherstripping, for instance] once we’re able to go back into homes, as well as make sure that we had a good understanding of our next-step recommendations.” This includes potentially putting customers in contact with contractors who could begin to carry out more ambitious projects.

Reading newspaperEnergy-efficient homes improve quality of life

A few weeks into the online program, it’s too soon to tell what role virtual visits will play in the future, said Olson. Although the state is gradually reopening, many households will probably choose to avoid non-essential visits for some time, she said. Even when customers feel more comfortable having people in their homes, the Home Energy Squad will likely minimize the time it spends indoors by moving part of its assessment online until coronavirus risks diminish.

“I think we’re going to use this [virtual visit setup] for a while in response to the ongoing COVID crisis, and then through that process, we’ll get more efficient at it,” she said. “And then we’ll continually think about how it can help the program in the future beyond the pandemic.”

Sarah Wesseler is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on cities, culture, and climate change.