Aug 19

Would Homeowners Say “Yes” to Energy Efficiency if it Came with Solar?


Solar is experiencing over-the-top popularity among US homeowners; energy efficiency not so much. But what if state programs made solar a subset of energy efficiency?

That’s the recommendation of an intriguing paper released August 19 by the Center for Sustainable Energy.

The California non-profit tried to tease out what it takes to motivate solar customers to pursue energy efficiency.  Homeowners run the risk of buying more solar panels than they need, if they do not make their homes efficient first.

Several state and utility programs think the energy audit is the answer. They require an audit before homeowners can receive incentives. But audits may have limited impact.

Such is the case in San Diego where the researchers studied more than 2,300 residents who participated in the California Solar Initiative rebate program.

Only 30 percent even remembered the audits being done; 42 percent said no audit was done and 28 percent were unsure.  This seems to be a fault of memory, since paperwork was filed with the state verifying the audits.

Even though the audits didn’t make a big impression, the majority (87 percent) of those surveyed did make some sort of energy efficiency improvements. But the upgrades were mostly simple: swapping out light bulbs, fans and shower heads, or buying more efficient appliances. The homeowners tended to forego deeper retrofits. For example, only one in eight pursued duct sealing, although the average California home loses 30 percents of its air conditioning through leaky duct work, the paper said.

Only 30 percent even remembered the audits being done; 42 percent said no audit was done and 28 percent were unsure.

Avoiding grid power

Authors Ria Langheim, Georgina Arreola and Chad Reese then held focus groups to investigate the thoughts and actions of the homeowners more deeply.  They talked to two groups that tend to invest in energy products, what they called ‘leading achievers’ and  ‘practical spenders.

Leading achievers typically own their homes, earn high incomes, hold advanced degrees and vote for liberals. Environmental concerns motivate them, as does worry about  future generations.

Practical spenders are more politically conservative and pursue energy efficiency to save money and reduce dependence on foreign countries. Their incomes and education levels are slightly lower than the leading achievers.

The researchers found that having solar panels on their roofs did change behavior. The focus group participants reported that they were trying to use no more energy than the solar panels produced;  they didn’t want to buy grid power.

Still most did not complete energy efficiency upgrades in conjunction with their solar installation, even  though they understood the value of doing so. They made no strong mental connection between the solar installation, the audit, and timing of energy efficiency upgrades. “It seems that the requirement was merely a formality in the application process,” the researchers said.

Who’s talking to homeowners?

The authors speculated that solar contractors are not taking the time to educate consumers about the audit.

“The implications of this are potentially large given the scale of savings that could be left on the table when energy efficiency is not addressed
comprehensively before the installation of the PV system,” the paper said.

So what’s to be done? The paper suggests swapping the order of things. Today, energy efficiency is a subset of the solar installation process under the California program. Under their proposal, solar becomes a subset of energy efficiency. To get solar incentives, homeowners would sign onto an energy efficiency program. The paper suggests re-framing the California solar rebate program into a ‘home energy upgrade technology’ program.

Would this work? It makes a lot of sense. Consumers are motivated to pursue solar.  That won’t go away if solar is folded into a larger home energy efficiency effort. But it may encourage the solar energy seekers to take energy efficiency more seriously. Another benefit: we could see “crossovers of energy efficiency contractors to solar and solar contractors to energy efficiency.” Trained in both, the contractors are less likely to push solar at the expense of energy efficiency.

Called Energy Efficiency Motivations and Actions of California Solar Homeowners, the paper  is available for free download here.

The paper is part of this year’s Summer Study held by  the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, being held Aug. 17-22 at the Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, Calif.


About Elisa Wood
Elisa Wood is an editor at She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

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