Women in the energy efficiency workforce [guest post]

Hi, my name is Crystal Yeh and I’m an intern at Sealed this summer. I’m an Environmental Studies major with a minor in Public Policy at Hunter College. Much of my responsibilities involve interacting both with customers and with our partners so this sparked my interest on the top of gender disparity in the green workforce. 

It’s almost a cliché for woman to write this truism: “there are disproportionately few women in my field” without eliciting eye rolls. But I have to say it: there are disproportionately few women in the home energy efficiency business. Moreover, there are disproportionately few women in green jobs in general. Why is that? 

Bureau of Labor Statistics show that only a small percentage of women are in fields such as engineering, installation, repairing, industrial production managers, etc. (More on that here). Many green jobs relate to energy or infrastructure, all of which currently lack women.

I recall talking to a beloved honors math teacher who attended engineering school and he told me “when I was in engineering school in the 60s, there were 4 women out of a graduating class of 300.” Flashback to when I was deciding what college to attend, I seriously considered attending a great engineering school and majoring in environmental engineering (I ended up choosing an inexpensive college and majoring in the policy side of environmental studies). I found that the school that I was looking at was 70-30 Male-Female, and this is with over a decade of initiatives to bring more women in. When making this decision, my mother reminded me that an engineering school “might not be fit for a girl” explicitly, and she’s certainly no sexist in general. 

The lack of women working in these industries ultimately stems from inertia. One of the basic tenets of physics is that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. As STEM industries have been traditionally male-dominated, any changes are an uphill battle.

Encouraging women to enter the green workforce isn’t only beneficial to the individual, but it may be a huge asset for companies as well. A Catalyst report on Fortune 500 companies found that companies with the highest numbers of women board directors and women corporate officers on average achieve higher financial performance than those with the lowest. Women also tend to reinvest more into families and communities which may create a positive externality for society as whole, especially in a field such as environmental services that have a social goal. Furthermore, given that the green workforce has expanded 4.9% annually, 4 times that of most industries currently in our economic recession, it’s only reasonable that women proliferate the field accordingly. Women entering the field would be beneficial to both individual and business. 

Proposals to incentivize women into sections of the workforce that are traditionally male-dominated include offering mentoring and networking to women via their academic institution or having quotas on women employees in individual companies. Personally, I worry that this approach may cause resentment from people who view this as “special treatment” to a group or unfair to the “average male college student” who may not have such opportunities. 

I propose that it may be more beneficial to start from the bottom up and encourage girls from elementary school onwards to study subjects in the STEM fields. This way by the time they are of college-age, likely an equal proportion of males and females will be in the STEM fields and they will enter the workforce in equal numbers naturally. 

In the energy efficiency field, specifically, colleges should encourage women to be energy auditors and contractors. People naturally gravitate towards fields that they’re good at. In the efficiency field, women can play to their advantages: we tend to be more empathetic, pay attention to minor details and be likeable to strangers. If employers recognize this value that women add to the workforce, more women will be hired into the energy efficiency field. 

Efficiency behavior versus home improvements [guest post]

Hey everyone! My name is Alex Legakis and I am one of the new interns for Sealed. I was born and raised in Stony Brook, New York and am currently a student at Cornell University, studying Environmental Science and Sustainability.

The first two weeks here have involved a lot of catching up and getting up to speed, meeting new people, studying all the state and local programs, as well as learning about Sealed. One of the things that really caught my attention concerning home efficiency is that people feel habitual fixes to their everyday lives will produce stronger results than structural fixes to their homes.  

For example, if one takes shorter showers, lowers the thermostat, turns the lights off when not home, they can reduce their energy waste to acceptable levels. All those habitual fixes are great but after learning how much home efficiency improvements can affect energy waste, I think it is imperative to tell people who have put in the effort to change their habits that their home could be working against all their progress. 

When talking with a Long Island contracting company, Powersmith, they said that their work on average reduces a home’s energy bills between twenty to fifty percent, which to me seems like some real progress! I feel like structural fixes are something people really don’t think about. When approached with thoughts on home efficiency they reflect on their lifestyle choices and energy use, and not the efficiency of the home itself. 

When people first start to hear about the savings they can achieve by structurally changing their home, I think many will be skeptical. The social belief that you’re in control of your own energy waste through everyday actions is strong.

 While it is true that you can do a lot to reduce energy waste through everyday actions, it helps when your home is working with you, not against you. I think that is where guaranteed savings will become appealing to people because they see what we can promise they will save under the same conditions of the past.

I look forward to seeing how I can try and explain this to homeowners in the field and excited to see what else I can learn about societal attitudes towards home efficiency in the weeks to come.

What’s in a guarantee?

As anyone who reads this blog should know by now, Sealed is working to solve the largest barrier to greater adoption of home energy efficiency: confidence in the energy savings. 

So instead of throwing more black-box mumbo-jumbo at homeowners, we just guarantee the savings, making money when and if savings are actually there.

But what’s in a guarantee?

The idea of guaranteeing savings from clean energy is not new. As one long-time efficiency warrior / guru Mike Rogers pointed out in a recent blog post (in the comments), an energy savings guarantee was first tried in the 1980s with Perry Bigelow (great name!) in the context of new construction. [Sidenote: Mike’s post is worth reading on the difficulty / impossibility of selling efficiency based on “projected” savings]

Green Homes America (another Mike Rogers production) has also offered a savings guarantee for many years. And smaller companies like Bright Home and Eco-Intelligent Homes also advertise a savings guarantee. 

So why isn’t every home receiving energy efficient upgrades if the savings can be guaranteed today?

Well, as anyone who has watched a Walmart or Men’s Warehouse commercial knows, not all guarantees are created equal. There is a big difference between a “soft” and “hard” guarantee.

A “soft” guarantee relies upon the consumer to collect (think “we’ll beat any price” commercials). This kind of guarantee is valuable as a signal of confidence, but most people never think they would actually collect on the guarantee.

A “hard” guarantee is explicitly integrated into a contract so that if a certain event happens (or doesn’t) it is very clear what will happen. Pensions and most insurance products fall into this category. 

The solar industry has also embraced the idea of the “hard” guarantee. SolarCity’s Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) contract, for example, guarantees homeowners that they will only pay for the power actually generated:

Within 45 days of the end of each calendar year, SolarCity will compare the System’s actual production and the estimated production and either (i) send you a refund for any overpayments you made; or (ii) invoice you for the extra power the System produced.

Unfortunately, the guarantees offered today in the home efficiency industry are not seen as a “hard” guarantee by most homeowners. To collect on these guarantees, you have to call, send your bills, and allow a contractor back in your home. And unlike most other products, it is difficult to tell how much energy you are saving, and therefore whether you need to “call in” your guarantee. For better or worse, most people don’t have weather normalization calculators and plug-level meters lying around. 

Very few of today’s savings guarantees are collected upon because of these barriers. The result is much lower home efficiency adoption because homeowners don’t believe that (a) the savings will be there and (b) they would realistically collect on any guarantee.

Sealed offers a “hard” guarantee by building the savings into a real Guaranteed Savings Agreement that is shown on each and every Sealed Energy Bill. Homeowners never have to worry about “collecting” on a guarantee, but simply have it.