Energy efficiency programs that were largely halted by the COVID-19 crisis have adapted significantly, but now must restructure and retool in preparation for resuming full operations.
The imperative is clear: Efficiency programs remain vital for households and businesses to reduce their energy costs, including for those bearing the highest burdens, and to cut carbon emissions.
Energy efficiency programs are not like water faucets that can be easily turned back on when they have been turned off. Well-trained workers, for instance, may find employment in other industries if their efficiency jobs are put on hold indefinitely (more than 400,000 efficiency workers filed for unemployment in March and April). Program infrastructure must be maintained so that they can regain full speed when conditions permit.
Ensuring that these programs are not permanently set back by the COVID-19 crisis will require adapting to reduce direct human contact, focus resources on the most affected communities, and closely re-examine program services.
To respond to the new realities and manage through the evolving crisis, we recommend eight ways that efficiency programs can adjust to the current situation and plan for the future:
Programs must react to new realities
1. Continue virtually
At the onset of stay-at-home orders, programs quickly halted all services that involve direct contact with customers, such as home assessments and on-site installations of energy-efficient technologies. Many programs have expanded or established virtual means to provide services. Examples include:
- Virtual home/building energy assessments, energy efficiency “treasure hunts,” virtual verification of energy efficiency measure installation.
- Promotion of online energy marketplaces—portals for purchasing energy-efficient products technologies, typically offered with program incentives.
- Administrative flexibility—moving funding to support virtual services, streamlining processing of incentive payments to customers and contractors to keep money flowing, allowing partial payment for work in progress.
2. Build new participant pipelines and leverage available opportunities
A lot of program work can happen without direct customer contact, including planning and developing projects. Many types of energy efficiency measures can be installed and many projects move forward while adhering to public health guidelines. For example, programs can target vacant schools/offices (where applicable) and mechanical rooms now. One emerging idea is for programs delivering lighting, controls, and HVAC upgrades to partner with COVID-19 upgrade projects, such as dividers for open-space offices and improved air quality systems.
3. Engage and educate customers
With so many people staying at home, programs have a unique opportunity to engage with their customers to educate, inform, and motivate them to take actions to reduce their energy use and save money. Utilities in several states, including New York, Ohio, and Texas, have sent their customers specific advice on saving energy while they are at home during the day. Programs can expand and create new on-line resources, tools, and messages to increase their outreach to customers, identify and take advantage of immediate energy savings opportunities, and plan for longer-term improvements. For example, Xcel Colorado is pairing virtual audits with deliveries of no-cost do-it-yourself kits and virtual installation support, as well as follow up “virtual visits” to confirm installations and plan next steps. Consumers Energy is providing 100,000 smart thermostats to its customers during the pandemic through its online energy marketplace.
4. Train program staff and contractors
Program contractors and trade allies have been hit hard by the restrictions on direct customer contact. Programs can use this time to train program staff and contractors who are unable to work. Such training includes typical professional development and skills, as well as training on new guidelines and practices to ensure health and safety. For example, state officials in New York have developed guidelines and are coordinating free on-line training opportunities for clean energy contractors in response to the pandemic. Similar training and supporting resources are available to energy efficiency contractors serving utilities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.
Build for New Conditions
As the crisis conditions ease, programs can begin to look ahead to resuming full operations. Things will be different, however. To maintain momentum and ultimately emerge stronger as restrictions are removed, efficiency programs can:
5. Pivot and adapt programs to continue serving customers while adhering to public health guidelines and restrictions
Programs can focus on measures and approaches that minimize or eliminate direct customer contact, like the Massachusetts program prioritizing wall insulation that can be accessed from the outside and other on-premises work outside customer-occupied areas. Programs must procure personal protective equipment for workers, and can be retooled to support healthy homes and buildings.
6. Focus on the communities most heavily impacted by COVID-19
COVID-19 has dramatically increased the number of unemployed families facing affordability challenges, and it has disproportionally affected communities of color, especially Black communities. Portfolios should shift to focus on underserved people, and administrators should retarget and identify these customers. To ensure these customers can participate, states and utilities should adjust incentives and financing terms to enable participation by those most affected by the crisis financially. Program administrators should consider increasing incentive levels for highly affected communities. For example, utilities in Connecticut have increased incentives for energy efficiency measures—up to 100% of costs in some cases—and NYSERDA in New York is offering more-generous financing terms.
7. Use experience gained from this crisis to re-examine, streamline, and improve program designs and services
Program changes to protect health and safety in the pandemic can provide opportunities to reduce costs and improve services as normal conditions return. For example, programs can make greater use of online and mobile apps to gather customer data needed to assess energy efficiency opportunities and evaluate program impacts. Virtual means can be used to verify installation and performance of measures. This may require loosening of existing stringent in-person/on-site evaluation, measurement, and verification requirements, as utility regulators have done in California.
8. Manage funds so efficiency can be a tool for economic recovery
Many programs are not spending their full budgets due to slow-downs and shifts in services. We recommend that such accrued program funding be used, where possible, to accelerate and expand program services once full operations can resume. Administrators can plan for a program surge to regain progress toward meeting program saving targets.
Like all parts of our economy, energy efficiency programs have suffered a severe blow from the pandemic. Nonetheless, these programs have continued to provide limited services, some getting back into the field, and with leaders creatively pivoting to meet the challenge of this moment as conditions change. By following the recommendations we’ve outlined, programs can continue to provide vital services to customers and prepare to rebound—and help reduce energy costs during a prolonged economic recovery while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions.