Category Archives: Energy

Energy Network Weaving

Is this Still a Question?

Vox asks, “Can low-income housing be energy-efficient and affordable?”

Photo of The Rose energy efficient apartments Image Credit Aeon

Photo of The Rose energy efficient apartments, just down the street from my home. Image Credit Aeon

They’re reposting from Ensia. The first sentence answers with an unqualified, “Yes.” Then they get to the interesting bit, asking why it’s so hard and, “How?”

After using Energy Efficiency for All research to lay out the cost-effective opportunity of 15-30% efficiency improvements, they explore financing, scale, policy, and standards.

As I read, I smiled to see my network-oriented colleague Jacob Corvidae quoted, highlighting some of what I’ve been focusing on.

As Coreina Chan and Jacob Corvidae of the energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute put it, improving energy efficiency in low-income housing is “a wicked problem in a complicated field.” Many stakeholders — tenants, landlords, utility companies, creditors, and more — are involved, each with their own set of goals. The scale and size of properties varies greatly as well, so upgrades that make sense in one building may not in another.

A bit later, I was excited to a shout out to my work of the last 2+ years, I’m guessing from Jacob. Ensia writes,

New business models and strategies for encouraging adoption of energy efficiency-boosting retrofits are beginning to surface, thanks in part to the work of new forums such as the Network for Energy, Water, and Health in Affordable Buildings. In the forums, parties that otherwise might never talk to each other share information and together shape tangible solutions specific to their local context.

“The forums create fertile ground for stronger, unified answers for the energy and affordable housing problem,” Corvidae says.


Affordable Housing Energy

We have Data on Apartment Building Efficiency in Minnesota

EnergyScoreCards Minnesota logo

For four years, benchmarking multifamily buildings in Minnesota was a big part of my work. At long last, the final report from that project is public.  (A summary of findings is here.)

Benchmarking takes the raw data of how much energy and water a building uses, and normalizes it by building size (and more), so that you can get apples-to-apples comparisons of how buildings perform.

The big take-aways include:

  • master-metered buildings saved energy and water!
  • benchmarking multifamily buildings at scale is possible (we really weren’t sure when we started)
  • hands-on support, delivered by a consistent account manager, made the benchmarking valuable to participants
  • owners used it for much more than just saving energy and water.

The team delivering the benchmarking services (Jon and Colleen at BrightPower, Billy and Pat at CSBR, and me through Minnesota Green Communities) executed diverse tasks along the way. We:

  • developed outreach materials
  • traveled CenterPoint and Xcel territory doing outreach, in person and by phone
  • created tools – checklists, worksheets, tips – to drive energy- and water-saving action
  • worked with Xcel to get data access
  • met with participants regularly in person and by phone to help them make use of their data
  • more I’ve forgotten over the years.

It’s exciting to finally be able to share what we learned!


Certification Matters

Every year, I head online to buy carbon offsets. Three times, actually – for Flisrand Consulting, for my 4-unit apartment building, and for my personal consumption.  (For more background on my motivation, see my Greenwash Brigade post from two years ago.)

IA farmers

This year, odds are good I'm supporting these IA farmers build a wind turbine in their fields. (Photo from Native Energy)

I’m  a demanding customer, and I want to know I’m getting what I am paying for.  (An unanswered question is whether my carbon offset purchase is a charitable donation or a consumer purchase.  The IRS says it’s charitable, I perceive it as a consumer purchase.)

If there’s anything in the world that’s abstract and impossible for a consumer to personally evaluate, it’s the quality of a carbon offset.  How am I to know whether someone is really NOT producing a pound of carbon because I paid them not to???

Because there’s no other way for me to know, I demand my carbon offsets be verified by a third-party (scroll down to the bottom to see the verifiers).  The last few years, I’ve chosen Native Energy.  I love their projects, they do the verification right, and they make it easy to do business right.


Energy Green Building

Making the Invisible Visible

Sustainability is often about making the invisible visible. It’s impossible to see which house is leaking energy in the winter.  Or where a watershed starts and ends.

I love when the invisible becomes visible. Third-party certification for coffee or buildings or cleaning products was created so customers can SEE that one choice is intentionally going above and beyond the bare minimum.

I love the window seats on planes, because suddenly, topography becomes obvious. Out west, you can see rainfall patterns, and erosion.  The abstract concept of a watershed becomes something you can see.

I also love those winter days when the roofs are covered in frost or a dusting of snow.  Suddenly, you can see heat escape.

Missing/No insulation

There is attic insulation, probably above the ceiling of the attic apartment, but the melted strip just left of the very white front room is either missing insulation or has air leaks in it. There appears to be no insulation below the peak of the attic.

If there are narrow strips of frost between wide bands of melting, there’s probably no insulation — the wood in the rafters “insulate” better than the air, like at the very tip top of the roof in the picture above.

Attic with insulation

The attic on the right has mostly complete insulation and you can see that the wood in the rafters has transferred heat more effectively than the insulated slants, melting the snow. (Of course, the dormer on the left appears uninsulated, and there is a gap or two on the front.)

If there are narrow strips of melting between wide bands of frost, it signals that there is insulation — the rafters transfer heat better than the insulation.

I’m constantly looking for tools to make energy, water, toxin, health or other more sustainable choices accessible to customers.  Without that knowledge, customers can’t necessarily make the choices they want to make.

How do we build energy or sustainability scores into apartment advertising or MLS forms for people looking for housing?  How can we add durability and repair-ability information to retail options?

Affordable Housing Energy

Multi-family Apts. & Energy/Water Efficiency

existing building

I have spent countless hours of the last few years thinking about making existing multifamily buildings energy efficient.  The short answer is that it’s very, very hard, because there are so many structural hurdles in the way.  The long answer is finally, I see a glimmer of hope…

read more »