Energy Upgrade California

August 28, 2012
September/October 2012
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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On an ongoing basis, California’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs), in collaboration with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC), develop programs designed to promote residential energy efficiency. In 2010, recognizing that one of the largest energy use sectors is existing residential homes, the CPUC and CEC piloted a program called Energy Upgrade California (EUC). EUC is an umbrella for a variety of initiatives paid for with state and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. The core of these initiatives is IOU-managed rebate programs for upgrading existing homes.

Steve Mann
is a HERS rater, LEED AP+ Homes, Certified Energy Analyst, serial remodeler, and longtime software engineer. (April Wise Photos)

Energy Upgrade California is designed to have a consistent consumer message and outcome across all utility territories. However, at inception, each utility was given a certain amount of latitude to tweak its program to suit individual needs. As a result, each EUC program is slightly different. The Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) EUC program is now managed by Build It Green, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that took over the program in June 2011. This article gives an overview of the program and suggests ways in which some of the initial pitfalls could have been avoided. Full disclosure: Until this past spring, I was a senior QA/QC project manager for Build it Green within this program.

Program Overview

The core of the program is to promote energy efficiency upgrades in one- to four-unit buildings by paying incentives to the holders of the utility accounts, or property owners in the case of multiunit buildings. There are two paths to upgrading homes. The Basic path consists of a prescriptive set of measures: duct sealing, air sealing, attic insulation, hot-water pipe insulation, and combustion testing. This upgrade qualifies for a $1,000 rebate. Almost 100% of the EUC jobs submitted, however, follow the Advanced path, in which enrolled contractors do an initial assessment of the building, propose upgrades based on energy modeling and their skill set, do the work, and test their results.

The test-out results are the basis for the Advanced rebate. Incentives range from $1,500 to $4,000, depending on the energy savings calculated by CEC-approved modeling software. Calculated energy savings must reach a minimum of 15%, which triggers a $1,500 payment. The maximum rebate is $4,000, which is given when the energy savings reach 40%. Within this scale, rebates increase in increments of $500.

Incentives are prorated in split territories. For instance, if PG&E supplies gas to a household, but another utility provides electricity, the PG&E incentive is a prorated percentage of the total rebate based only on the estimated electricity savings. Because this program is managed by PG&E, buildings that use propane cannot participate.

Participating contractors are responsible for doing the assessments, the modeling, the work, and the submission of all paperwork for the rebate process. They have to apply to participate in the program. For the Advanced path, contractors must

  • hold a General Building Contractor (Class B) license;
  • have a BPI-certified professional on staff;
  • be fully insured and add PG&E and Build It Green as Additional Insured parties to their liability policy;
  • have their employees and subcontractors submit to a background check; and
  • complete a mandatory training.

The enrollment process typically takes just a few weeks. Once enrolled, the contractor is given an online ID to access the job submission software.

Right ImageDavid Cohen from Energy Upgrade congratulates the Genaro family in San Fernando, California, after it realized an 80% reduction in utility bills following installation of solar panels and a whole-house upgrade. (Energy Upgrade California in L.A. County)

How It Works: Job Submission

The process starts with an initial whole-house assessment in which the contractor has to do a full building takeoff, and do blower door and duct leakage testing (there are exceptions for asbestos and a few other extenuating circumstances). The contractor also has to do comprehensive combustion testing using BPI standards, augmented by PG&E requirements based on National Gas Appliance Testing (NGAT) standards. Any combustion failures must be addressed immediately, if there are significant health or safety issues, or included in the scope of work.

All this information is then plugged into CEC-approved modeling software for analysis and job submission (currently, the only approved software is EnergyPro by EnergySoft). The modeler creates the building as is, then selects a set of upgrade alternatives based on the assessment results, the contractor’s skill set, program guidelines, and discussions with whoever is paying for the improvements. Upgrades that can be used to calculate improved energy efficiency include

  • building shell and duct system sealing;
  • insulation improvements;
  • mechanical equipment upgrades;
  • window replacement;
  • refrigerator and lighting improvements; and
  • heating-and-cooling testing in conjunction with HVAC upgrades.

Currently, solar-thermal and PV upgrades are not part of the program; other IOU programs support them.

The complete job submission consists of the energy-modeling files, a combustion-testing work sheet, and a proposal or scope of work. The contractor loads all of these data into Green Energy Compass, an online tool for benchmarking and reporting residential energy use, and submits them for technical review. Build It Green QA reviewers check the application for completeness, accuracy, adherence to program guidelines, appropriate modeling, and other parameters. If the project makes it through the technical review, it then goes through an administrative review for such items as a valid BPI analyst certification number for the combustion tester, valid utility account holder IDs, and participation in previous incentive programs. If the application makes it through the administrative review, the contractor is issued a Notice to Proceed.

Finishing the Job

PG&E has developed a set of specifications that detail installation standards and guidelines for various upgrades. Guideline examples include an air-sealing target of 0.35 ACH natural, and duct leakage reduction to no more than 10%. Ducted systems are expected to be designed and installed using appropriate ACCA standards. Appliances, lighting, and windows are expected to be at least Energy Star rated. Insulation should be installed according to California Quality Insulation Installation (QII) standards, the equivalent of a RESNET Grade I installation. Clearly, some of these are just guidelines—you can’t guarantee that you can seal an existing duct system to 10% leakage or a building to 0.35 ACH natural. You can only do your best.

Once the contractor finishes the work, he or she resubmits the building model with the final set of upgrades and the test-out results. The test-out results should include combustion testing, air infiltration, and duct leakage numbers. Almost all jobs include air sealing, and many of them include duct system modifications.

The final submission is checked, and if the job makes it through the technical and administrative reviews once again, it’s flagged as complete. A check is then cut to the utility account holder based on the final modeled percentage savings.

Field Verifications and Quality Assurance

In addition to desktop reviews, all contractors are subject to some level of field verification or quality assurance. There are detailed sampling rules patterned after Home Performance with Energy Star’s protocols. Field verifiers are all BPI certified. Most of them are California HERS raters and have undergone Home Performance with Energy Star training as well.

The field verification consists of several parts. First, the verifier does a building takeoff and compares the findings with the building model submitted with the job. Second, he or she verifies that the measures listed in the scope of work are installed and meet the program’s installation specifications. Third, the verifier does a complete set of combustion tests based on BPI’s and PG&E’s enhanced protocols. Finally, he or she replicates the duct and blower door tests. Each job either passes or fails, depending on the verification findings.

PG&E also attempts to send field verifiers out to all completed jobs to do combustion testing. Contractors are required to fix any problems found by the PG&E inspectors. The most common failures are gas leaks and blocked combustion ventilation air vents.

Lessons Learned

Build It Green took over this program in June 2011, when the program goal was to retrofit 15,000 homes by the end of 2012. As of January 2012, only 2,000 homes had been submitted to the program. Based on the enrollment rate, PG&E revised its goal to 7,500 homes by the end of 2012. Build It Green is aggressively working to enroll more contractors and help the currently enrolled contractors to be more successful so that goal can be met.

Several lessons were learned in the course of administering this program. Here are some of my personal observations, in no particular order. These do not in any way reflect the thinking of my colleagues at Build It Green or of anyone at PG&E.

Select your partners carefully. This is a large program with three separate IT partners. You have to make sure that all parties have the same goals, values, and end result targets. It’s like a marriage: Cooperation and a sense of humor come in very handy. Experience with large-scale IT projects is essential.

Don’t rush the design process. Build It Green took over the program after an initial pilot, with relatively short notice (a few months). Not all systems were ready for prime time on the launch date because there just wasn’t enough time to completely figure out all the pieces. Avoid that approach at all costs.

Require certified professionals. All combustion testing must be done by BPI-certified professionals; however, no credentials were required for the people doing the building modeling, blower door testing, or duct testing. As a result, the Build It Green QA team spent a great deal of tech support time explaining things to contractor staff members, who are overworked and not necessarily as well qualified or trained as they should be. Insisting on proper qualifications could reduce this burden.

Patience is a virtue. When dealing with large bureaucracies at the state and utility levels, you need to be prepared to hurry up and wait, especially for legal reviews. Then be prepared to spring into action once something gets approved. This can be frustrating—a sense of humor helps.

Flexibility is also a virtue. Although the program parameters are very clearly defined, the Build It Green team often encountered new situations—unanticipated modeling requirements, program modifications, weird job submission data, and so on. You have to be flexible and respond quickly.

learn more

Steve Mann can be reached at steve@green-mann.com.

For more information about EUC, visit energyupgradeca.org.

For more information about Build It Green, visit www.builditgreen.org.

For more information about PG&E’s EUC program, visit www.builditgreenutility.org.

For more information about EnergyPro, visit www.energysoft.com.

For more information on Green Energy Compass, visit www.greenenergycompass.com.

Keep it simple, Stupid (KISS). The simpler you can make these programs, the better. Every complexity requires more training, more explanations, more tech support, more contractor headaches, and more overhead.

Consistency is good. Every IOU in Energy Upgrade California has similar, but different, requirements—for job submissions, for what qualifies for incentives, for desktop and field QA—you name it. Now that all the programs have been launched, the utilities are making an effort to align every program’s requirements after the fact, so they’re all on the same page. Unfortunately, that horse has left the barn and it’s hard to corral. This should have been done at the outset.

The contractor is the client. It’s important to market these types of programs to homeowners, but at the end of the day, the program is designed to serve contractors. By making them successful, you can make the program successful.

Train early and often in the field. Build It Green produces a lot of classroom training and webinars, sends out a monthly newsletter, and provides other contractor support activities. It became clear, however, after a few months, that the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to ensure the quality of the work is to be with the contractors when they test in and test out.

Don’t change horses. Build It Green took over the program from another program administrator after the pilot program. There were changes in requirements, IT systems, training, and almost every aspect of the program delivery. It was painful for all involved. Try not to do that. Did I mention that it helps to have a sense of humor?

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