Thoughts from #ACI2013

I just finished my first Affordable Comfort Institute (ACI) conference, and my head is spinning (and not just because of the parties). 

Despite the weird name, ACI is the largest home performance conference, and attracts a healthy mix of contractors, program folks and vendors (audit software, new insulation technologies, etc.). As a reminder, “home performance” is the term generally associated with efficiency improvements that create an energy reduction of 20%+.

It was a great experience, and I learned a ton about the challenges and opportunities of home performance across the country. Below are a few of the takeaways.

Many contractors don’t sell with energy savings

One of the things that struck me the most was how many contractors are selling home performance without talking about savings. This is mostly due to necessity for those in areas with low energy prices. Instead, they are selling on comfort, health and safety, with any projected energy savings being a nice by-product, but not a buying justification.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I’m very impressed by their ability to sell without savings. On the other hand, it does seem to limit the market penetration significantly. Most contractors I talked to said they love to sell on energy savings when they can, and would like to offer a guarantee as well (hear hear!).

But it did remind me that energy efficiency is doing much more than lowering energy bills. It is solving real people’s problems and therefore there is no way you can ONLY sell the energy savings (if you do you’re selling yourself short). 

There is a lot of diversity in business and program models

Another big thing that stuck out was how much diversity there is in business and program models across the country. Some contractors rely heavily on financing while others have their customers pay everything in cash. Some areas have heavy market involvement by the “program” people (state / non-profit / utility folks), while others rely much more on the contractors. Some contractors only do home performance, while others have it as a side business. Some programs try to create proactive engagement, while others are focused on leveraging reactive engagement (e.g. furnace breaks). 

While a lot of this diversity is appropriate to different market circumstances, my own take is that models that empowered the contractors worked a lot better than others. The contractors are the ones on the ground developing the relationship with the homeowners, and it always seems awkward when there is another party involved. The other side of this is a fear that unscrupulous contractors will take advantage of programs without producing results. 

To overcome these challenges, there needs to be more dialogue with the contractors to create systems that engender flexibility with accountability. More on this in another blog post. 

#OpenEnergyData is starting to come, but not fast enough

The last big thing that made an impression on me was the emergence of robust data sets that are finally quantifying the savings, realization rates (actual savings divided by projected savings) and variability. 

The DOE is taking an important leadership role on aggregating this data through the Building Performance Database (BPD) and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) with the Building America Field Data Repository (BAFDR). There are also a number of programs that are investing in gathering and analyzing their own data. These are all amazing efforts, and Sealed is obviously going to leverage them all if we can.

The disappointing observation, however, was that there did not seem to be the appropriate sense of urgency in allowing access to these data sets. The BPD in particular has a policy of only allowing derivative analysis, not being able to analyze the raw (anonymized) data. You can see Sealed’s comments to the BPD here. The bottom line is they should be asking their data partners to allow the raw data to be shared. 

The BAFDR (which will theoretically feed into BPD) looks to also have a ton of promise. NREL has gathered a good amount of data around home performance results, and are starting to use it to test the accuracy of various software tools (so far looks like Michael Blasnik’s “SIMPLE” model works best). But I was told that it might be “several years” until this data can be analyzed by anyone other than the government, a proposition that seems patently ridiculous given the value it can serve in the private market.

Various programs (weatherization, ARRA, etc.) are also starting to collect post-retrofit data, analyzing the overall realization rates and variance, and sharing them with the wider community. I’m going to talk about the takeaways from the data in another blog post, but it is very encouraging to see grassroots efforts to collect and share this data. 

In concert with more data is a new standardized data protocol (HPXML) that will hopefully be deployed soon in New York, Virginia and Arizona. 

Big thanks to the community

The last observation from ACI is just how great of a community it is. The people working in home performance are truly passionate about what they are doing, and it shows. These are men and women who have literally sacrificed everything to work in an industry that is rarely profitable (today), extremely frustrating and technically challenging. 

I felt welcomed by a family this week, one that I couldn’t be more excited to become more a part of. Special thanks to Dan Kartzman and the Powersmith crew for letting me tag along to various events (and delicious dinners), and introducing me to various HP folks. Another big shoutout to Aaron Goldfeder and the Energy Savvy team for throwing some awesome parties, and bringing some needed common sense (and data frameworks) to the industry. And thanks to Will Schweiger of Bablyon for data and smokeless cigarette education; Damian Hodgkinson, a Rochester-based contractor (and newly elected Efficiency First board member) who gave me some invaluable feedback on selling HP in the field; and Peter Troast, HP marketer extraordinaire, who imparted wisdom as always and also uncovered by #nerdcrush on his old Friends of the Earth co-worker Amory Lovins. Thanks also to Nate Adams, Coby Rudolph, Brian Kurtz and many others who made this week awesome.