Two New Programs Push the Envelope

September 01, 2011
September/October 2011
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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CattauragusThis home, served by Cattauragus Community Action in New York, received a solar photovoltaic and solar hot water system through the SERC grant. The PV system should offset 30-40% of the family's electrical usage. (DOE)

Over the past 34 years, DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has been steadily innovating and improving to deliver better energy efficiency services to low-income families throughout the nation. From the early years of performing basic upgrades, like caulking and insulating, WAP has transformed to a comprehensive, whole-house approach, with computerized audit tools and advanced diagnostic equipment. A $5 billion investment in WAP through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Recovery Act) has greatly expanded the program, and as of May 2011, over 450,000 families had received weatherization services that improved the energy efficiency and comfort of their homes. The program is also creating and supporting thousands of local jobs—over 14,500 in the first quarter of 2011—putting carpenters, electricians, and factory workers back to work installing insulation, upgrading appliances, and improving heating and cooling systems.

WAP’s history of advancement and the recent expansion through the Recovery Act have also led to two new programs designed to drive more innovation and provide even greater energy and cost savings to families across the United States.

The first, the Weatherization Innovation Pilot Program (WIPP), will accelerate innovations in whole-house weatherization for low-income families. Through this program, which began in 2010, DOE has awarded $30 million to a total of 16 grantees. Grantees are tasked with applying an experimental approach to the business-as-usual model, with a focus on improving the key performance metrics of weatherization: saving more energy and money in low-income clients’ homes, and getting the weatherization job done with less federal investment. A key component of WIPP is leveraging the federal funding. DOE has set a goal of bringing in three nonfederal dollars for every DOE grant dollar issued, which means that $120 million of weatherization services will be provided but only 25% of those funds will come from the taxpayers.

The second new program, Sustainable Energy Resources for Consumers (SERC), provides grants that allow local weatherization agencies to expand upon the technologies they install in homes, including both renewable-energy and energy efficiency technologies that cannot currently be installed under the traditional WAP. These new technologies include solar electricity, small-scale wind energy generation, various water heating technologies, in-home energy monitors, heat pumps, and cool roofs, among others.

Weatherization Innovation—a Scientific Approach

The WIPP grants address the pressing need to increase the rate and total number of low-income residential energy retrofits in the most cost-effective manner. DOE approaches these grants as 16 experiments in how weatherization might be done a little differently, and ultimately more effectively. These grantees will apply four main approaches to accomplish this: financial tools, green and healthy homes, new technologies and techniques, and workforce development and volunteer models.

Financial Tools

The pilot programs that focus on financial tools will explore how a diverse range of financing mechanisms might be used to expand the reach of the federal grant, while still providing the benefits of high-quality weatherization for low-income clients. To investigate these key issues, DOE has funded six grantees to test financial models that allow for greater private sector leveraging.

Sustainable Resources CenterJake McAlpine and Sam Greene from the Sustainable Resources Center of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in front of various systems being tested for consideration in the SERC grant. These systems provide both central heat and domestic hot water. (DOE)

The Local Energy Alliance Project in Virginia and Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future in Washington, D.C., have both proposed an Energy Services Company (ESCO) approach to the weatherization of multifamily buildings. A professional ESCO will perform the audit and cost-effective retrofit of the buildings, and the building owners will take out a loan to finance the work, and receive energy savings in excess of the loan payment. The Washington State Department of Commerce will establish partnerships with community development financial institutions to provide financing and also streamline delivery of services through a one-stop entry point for interested multifamily building owners.

Three Grantees are focusing on financing for clients living in single-family or small multifamily buildings. Energy Pioneer Solutions in Hastings, Nebraska, is employing a model in which the DOE grant will pay for approximately half of the services and a homeowner loan that is added directly to the client’s utility bill will pay for the remaining costs. This on-bill financing, which is possible because Energy Pioneer Solutions is partnered with the local utility, enables homeowners to see the net benefit they are receiving every month. The Utah Division of Housing and Community Development will partner with the state’s housing financing agency and industrial banks to deliver favorable loan terms on weatherization work to homeowners with incomes of 150–200% of poverty. The City of Danville, Virginia, is establishing a revolving loan pool through city funds to enable financing for the weatherization work and will focus on rental properties. Clients served through these three grantees’ models will be using the energy savings to contribute to the costs of the weatherization work by paying back a loan over time, and after the loan is fully repaid the clients will receive all the energy-saving benefits.

Green and Healthy Homes

WAP is chartered not only to help low-income families save money on their energy bills, but also to protect the health and safety of its clients. In recent years, an increased emphasis on healthy homes has emerged, and DOE is actively participating in a variety of forums to improve client health and safety. Projects in WIPP will combine weatherization services with a comprehensive green and healthy homes approach that incorporates air quality improvement and lead abatement services, among other things. Two grantees are exploring these questions.

The Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, in Baltimore, Maryland, will use DOE funds to weatherize homes and nonfederal funds from various foundations, nonprofits, and utilities, along with state and local funds, to reduce mold, stabilize lead paint, and replace windows. United Illuminating, a private utility company based in New Haven, Connecticut, will render its energy efficiency and housing improvement programs more effective by streamlining and integrating them into comprehensive upgrades.

New Technologies and Techniques

Five of the WIPP grants will continue the trend of new and better technologies and techniques to improve the outcome of weatherization work. Two grantees, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and the Commission on Economic Opportunity of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, are exploring the use of in-home energy-monitoring devices to help educate low-income families on their energy consumption, and to encourage them to reduce that consumption. They will also explore how energy savings change over time for households with these instruments. In addition to providing the devices, the grantees will deliver various trainings and interventions via phone calls, e-mails, and in-person visits, to learn which types of messages are most effective and which methods pay for themselves over time.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is investigating climate-appropriate technologies for the state, which has three distinct climate zones. These technologies include ductless heat pumps, whole-house fans, and the extensive monitoring of in-home energy use. The New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, which works to improve the lives of manufactured housing residents throughout New Hampshire, is partnering with the state’s local weatherization agencies to enhance weatherization techniques in manufactured housing parks. The organization is also contributing $2.5 million of funding through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Community Environmental Center in Long Island, New York, is implementing a number of innovations, including partnership with state and local organizations to supplement federal funding; working with domestic manufacturers to incorporate highly-efficient windows, reflective roofs, and solar technologies; and an increasing focus on protecting the energy savings through weatherization by working extensively with building maintenance staff.

A $5 billion investment in WAP through the Recovery Act has greatly expanded the program. As of May 2011, over 450,000 families had received weatherization services that improved the energy efficiency and comfort of their homes.

Workforce Development and Volunteer Models

Identifying new ways of getting things done is an integral part of adaptation and innovation within any business or organization. Three of the WIPP grantees proposed alternative workforce development or volunteer-based approaches, and each of these holds promise for creating a new business model for the weatherization of homes for low-income families. The goal of these innovations is to discover if these organizations can adapt their models, which have proven successful over many years in different sectors, to the work of weatherization, and whether the models will prove successful in this sector as well.

Habitat for Humanity International will implement weatherization pilots in 18 or more of its affiliates throughout the country, building upon its traditional success in engaging volunteers to build new homes. This pilot will explore the use of volunteers, coordinated by paid and trained weatherization experts on-site, to weatherize existing homes in line with DOE’s protocols. The end goal of this pilot is to establish a Habitat program that requires no federal funding in the future. Building upon its model for developing youth and training them in construction trades, YouthBuild, USA will pilot a nationally coordinated system for six of its local YouthBuild affiliates to move into the weatherization field. YouthBuild is aiming to establish fee-for-service divisions to build upon the work it begins under this DOE grant. People Working Cooperatively in Cincinnati, Ohio, is leveraging state grants and utility funds with this DOE grant to coordinate a full-service weatherization program. The organization also has an extensive volunteer network that it uses to make homes weatherization ready, in preparation for receiving DOE grant funding.

Table 1. Technologies Being Installed in SERC Projects
Table 1. Technologies Being Installed in SERC Projects

SERC Grants—Exploring New Technologies

In 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act included a new provision for WAP: In any year for which WAP funding exceeded $275 million, up to 2% of the funding could be set aside to allow “materials, benefits, and renewable and domestic energy technologies” to be installed that cannot traditionally be implemented in WAP. These Sustainable Energy Resources for Consumers (SERC) grants were to be given to local weatherization agencies. Priority would be given to those technologies that were expected to be the most effective and the most beneficial to clients; that were the most easily replicated; that would have the greatest impact on clients’ health, safety, and energy costs; and would involve the most extensive partnerships with outside entities.

The Recovery Act’s $5 billion funding for WAP far exceeded the $275 million threshold, and $90 million, or nearly the full 2%, was allocated to SERC. In June 2010, DOE asked its 58 Recovery Act grantees to submit applications for SERC grants on behalf of local weatherization agencies in their state or territory, but DOE stipulated that the local agencies must be performing at a high level with their existing Recovery Act funding in order to qualify for a SERC grant. This meant that they must have met at least 30% of their goal for homes weatherized, and have spent at least 30% of their funding, before the Recovery Act grantee could apply for a SERC grant on their behalf.

After reviewing the applications, DOE selected 101 local weatherization agencies in 27 States to implement SERC projects. This means that nearly half of the WAP grantees and 10% of the local agencies are currently participating in SERC projects. These awards will allow local agencies for the first time to install renewable-energy systems and cutting-edge energy efficiency technologies in homes. Table 1 shows a sample of the types of technology that are being installed in these SERC projects.

Implementing the Programs and Evaluating the Results

By the end of July 2011, the projects under both WIPP and SERC grants will be in full swing. DOE has set up resources to help these grantees succeed and to evaluate their results in the coming year. Through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the grantees and local agencies can solicit experts to help them get correct and practical answers to their questions. These questions might range from “What is the best type of solar PV system for my application?” to “What is a good model for a request-for-proposal to solicit bids from private companies?” Webinars have been held on the SERC technologies that will most often be installed throughout the country to help weatherization agencies understand the most important considerations when undertaking projects of this kind.

For DOE, the next step is to rigorously evaluate the results of these new programs, so that the successful results can be replicated. To accomplish this, DOE is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to administer an independent evaluation of each of the WIPP projects and each of the technologies deployed through SERC. For WIPP, the evaluation focuses on the quality of the weatherization work, the energy savings achieved, and determining how the various innovative approaches worked in practice.

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For more information on WIPP, go to

For more information on SERC, go to

For SERC, the evaluation focuses on two areas. The first area of focus is the quantitative impact of the project. How much energy did the project save, was it cost-effective, did it help low-income families keep their bills paid and their lights on, and should the technology be rolled into the base WAP? About 15 of the technologies will be rigorously evaluated, using home performance measurements and utility bill readings. The other 30 technologies will be evaluated with moderate rigor, using deemed energy savings values to calculate cost-effectiveness. The second area of focus is the local agencies, and their implementation of SERC projects. Were they able to meet their goals, did the technologies work as expected, and what problems were encountered and overcome? The evaluation of these programs will help provide the information needed to determine which of these new approaches and technologies were successful and which were not.

Pushing the Envelope to Improve WAP

Through the WIPP and SERC grant programs, DOE has invested in efforts to determine if there are new, different, and ultimately better ways to implement weatherization and make the homes of low-income families more healthy, safe, and energy efficient. DOE expects to learn a lot of lessons through WIPP and SERC—lessons on how best to meet that goal, and probably some lessons on what not to do as well. As these projects push the envelope into new and innovative directions, they promise to make WAP stronger for years to come.

Tyler Huebner is an energy technology program specialist for DOE’s WAP.

This article was sponsored by DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program, through the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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