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Going Deep: What’s Next in Efficiency for Existing Buildings

April 13, 2020

As states ramp up energy efficiency and decarbonization goals, existing buildings are critical to this progress. Yet the challenge is mounting for utilities and agencies looking to scale their existing building programs in parallel to deliver on these goals.


Programs work with owners of commercial, industrial, and multifamily buildings—who must be convinced of the business interest to make improvements. And programs that have historically relied on lighting retrofits to deliver savings are oversaturated in many markets, driving a need for new approaches.

What will it take to deliver the deeper building energy savings and carbon reductions that we need? The industry is embracing this challenge through two key strategies:

1. Developing lasting, trusted customer relationships.

Existing building programs based on relationships reap tremendous benefits: engaging more building owners, motivating them towards greater-impact solutions, and extending the relationship over a longer timeframe.


This relationship starts with the moment customers encounter the program. Program designs are inclusive, welcoming customers wherever they are in their journey, through multiple points of entry such as the recommendation of a trusted contractor or local organization. Proactively bringing the program to customers, rather than making them search for it, is key to broad engagement.

Once customers are in the program, a single-point-of-contact or “concierge” guides them towards the right solutions. This approach is particularly important for existing buildings programs which often serve buildings owners with a wide range of interests or capabilities. Streamlining entry improves the customer experience while reducing program administration costs.

Through a concierge model, a technical energy advisor can best match customer needs and goals to an optimized solution. For example, advisors understand which measures are a good fit for a particular building and can align projects with building owner cash flows and schedules to ensure financially viability. The energy advisor and their relationship with customers can also drive deeper energy savings or carbon reduction solutions. We have seen this approach work well through one New Jersey utility’s multifamily building program, as the advisor demonstrates the value of more advanced measures to customers. And to overcome up-front cost hurdles, the advisor helps customers identify financing options and other resources.

Advisors build relationships with customers for the long-term. Technical advisors can continuously engage customers and combine immediate projects with later planned upgrades through a longer-term energy roadmap. Typically, programs serve customers and close the transaction, only to have to start over to recruit them again for additional measures. Continuous customer engagement and roadmap lays out the relationship and timing of future upgrades, resulting in next-to-nothing acquisition costs for future participation.

Roller Derby Cascade Natural Gas’ (CNG) commercial and industrial program is an example of how strong customer relationships have yielded exceptional results. For one CNG project, we worked with a large Washington property management group to implement nearly half a million dollars-worth of upgrades over 6 months. The results lowered energy costs and created happy tenants: “The upgrade has drastically improved the temperature and comfort in our facility,” said Wine Country Crushers Roller Derby Team facility manager Jeremy Sandino. “Our athletes have all commented on how much quieter and cool the building is during practices.” (Photo: The Wine Country Crushers roller derby team practice venue was upgraded through the CNG program, from the Yakima Herald)

2. Designing for deeper savings pathways.

The program design itself can lead customers towards greater impacts. Programs can encourage deeper energy and carbon savings through a comprehensive solution—and creating a long-term pathway to do more over time.

A whole-building approach provides customers a holistic analysis of their building energy systems and reflects interactive effects of multiple upgrades. The NYSERDA Multifamily Performance Portfolio has been a leading example among multifamily programs for more than a decade, with a single point-of-entry approach for an optimal customer experience and a whole-building option that reduces energy use across buildings by more than 20 percent.

Short of tackling the whole building, strategic bundled measures are a great option too. Customers still earn deemed but also additive savings. For example, the Oregon Housing and Community Services’ Multifamily Energy Program services low-income Oregonians living in qualified properties. To engage a broader base of owners and improve resident affordability, the program gives customers flexibility in choosing bundles that fit their needs. Programs can also incorporate post-installation savings opportunities, such as operations and maintenance guidance, benchmarking, occupant and resident behavior strategies.

Many building owners may not have the resources, time, or foresight to complete all their projects at once. Traditional programs often release customers after their first project and lose subsequent savings/investment. Instead, programs can provide customer-specific long-term energy roadmaps. Roadmaps also align with (and inform) the building owner’s capital and budget planning.

Some agencies that deliver programs for their own buildings, include master planning as the first step. For example, the Archdiocese of New York developed an Energy Master Plan which identified energy efficiency, procurement, renewable energy, data management and training initiatives through 2022. Similarly, building owners served by utility and agency programs can use this principle to apply successes from their current projects across their portfolio of buildings.

Programs can also include or coordinate with initiatives beyond efficiency, such as strategic electrification, renewable energy systems, or demand response. Increasingly, utilities are launching integrated demand side management (IDSM) programs—with streamlined outreach and incentives for prescriptive/custom efficiency measures, demand response, smart thermostats, direct load control and time-of-use rates, among other solutions. In cases where existing buildings are served by separate programs (e.g., efficiency through one, solar through another), implementers can easily cross-refer and co-fund projects between programs.

The road ahead

To reach critical energy and carbon goals, we need a new approach other than “one and done.” Many utilities and agencies are taking this opportunity to build customer-centric, long-term relationships and deliver comprehensive energy solutions with roadmaps for customers to continue improvements into the future. We are continually impressed by the innovation our clients, colleagues and peers are bringing to this challenge—and look forward to championing the next generation of solutions.

Julieann Summerford, Shelley Beaulieu, Andrea Thompson and Josh Stoneman contributed to this article.

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