The green building movement, tax credits, and other incentives are all valiant efforts for improving the energy efficiency and the value of our housing stock. Problem is, we don’t have a benchmark to show what true improvement is, noted Sean Penrith, executive director of the Earth Advantage Institute, during a session at the 2011 International Builders’ Show, and that leaves people confused about what to look for, what to believe, and what to do first. “[Consumers] have no way to quantify the performance of a home” other than a builder’s brand,” Penrith said.
Penrith and his colleagues at Earth Advantage, an Oregon green building educational group and certification body, are advocating for a national energy labeling program that would provide homebuyers with standard, consistent home-performance metrics, similar to the nutrition label on food and the miles-per-gallon rating on vehicles. Such a tool would not only make it easier to comparison shop for homes, but would simplify energy upgrade decisions.
Only 0.5% of homeowners who undergo an energy audit move forward with upgrades, Penrith said; part of the blame, is that forms are not standard and there is no consistent attainable number a homeowner can work toward and therefore use to guide purchases.
“We need to standardize these things so people can understand that they can move from Point A to Point B by taking steps 1, 2, and 3,” he said.
What’s more, labels guide behavior. Penrith pointed to the addition of trans fats to the national nutritional label and how that guided consumers away from foods containing them and eventually led to their phase-out from many items.
The ideal metric, Penrith explained, would meet the following criteria:
Apply to any new or existing home
Be timeless (i.e., you can compare the MPG of a Model T to a Prius)
Allow meaningful comparisons
Spur consumer action
Allow common terminology in an energy discussion
Increase demand for contractor and builder services for high-performance homes
Work with any third-party green/energy-efficiency program plus additional audit programs
Reflect builder performance and eliminate greenwashing claims
Stimulate preferred mortgage and insurance products
Empower Realtors with sales prospects
Link to the MLS
Europe and Australia have national programs; but while the U.S. has several options—including HERS, Energy Smart, and HESPro—there is no single across-the-board measure.
As part of its efforts to institute a national program, the DOE launched the Home Energy Score pilot in November. The tool assigns homes a value of 1 to 10, with higher values being better.
But while the program is simple to understand, Penrith has concerns, including that its higher-is-better points scale is at odds with existing systems like HERS. Home Energy Score also features two separate scales for houses above or below 2,200 square feet, which means all houses can’t be compared side by side.
Finally, Penrith noted that the value of scores within the DOE program will change as Residential Energy Consumption Surveys (RECS) are updated, which means houses built today may not be able to be fairly compared to houses built five years from now.
EARTH ADVANTAGE LABEL
In an effort to aid consumers and contractors, Earth Advantage created its own labeling system, Energy Performance Score (EPS), which it piloted across 300 homes in 2008 and launched formally in 2010. Under the program, residential buildings score on a scale of 0 to 200 based on millions of BTUs used per year, with 0 being net-zero. According to Duane Woik, green building consultant for Earth Advantage and state director with the Oregon HBA, EPS allows pros to build at their comfort level while providing homebuyers with a quantifiable and easy-to-understand measurement. (To view a scoring sample, click here.)
The system also scores homes based on carbon footprint, on a scale of 0 to 15, and provides ratings for annual and monthly energy costs, similar to what buyers see on a refrigerator label.
The Energy Performance Score program has already expanded beyond Oregon, with pilots underway in Seattle and Bellingham, Wash.
As the DOE tests out the Home Energy Score program, it also is looking at the opportunities and successes presented by similar programs, Penrith said, noting that Earth Advantage, in part or in full, is under consideration.
No matter what, he noted, “energy labeling is going to be part of your life in the next five years.”
Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.