Experiences as an Electrical Utility Energy Auditor

By Aaron Martin, ESG Energy Analyst 

It is no secret that energy efficiency is here to stay. From homeowners to building managers to public utilities, we strive to maximize comfort, increase productivity, and enhance generation and distribution while simultaneously decreasing energy usage. As energy prices continue to rise, efficiency will very likely become the new norm. To paraphrase the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the term “green” may very well disappear from the modern lexicon as we replace older, resource-intensive methods and materials with modern, efficient alternatives.

Near the forefront of these efforts are the public utilities. The corporations that provide us with the energy we need to work and play have a vested interest in increasing efficiency and reducing demand. Avoided costs create added profits, streamlined services for customers, and funds for research and development. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the typical coal-fired power plant has capital costs of around $3,250 per kilowatt; given that such a facility has a capacity of approximately 500 megawatts, it goes without saying that your local utility would love to avoid building another power production plant.

Duke Energy is no exception in this regard. Their website has received an overhaul that emphasizes energy efficiency, containing graphical analyses and tailored data points for homeowners, and even features an energy efficient product shopping area. Over the past couple of years, residential customers may have noticed the promotion of more efficient lighting through the distribution of free compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Duke Energy representatives have taken the subject of energy efficiency to local schools; during his kindergarten year, my son  came home one day with an energy efficiency kit containing CFLs and high efficiency plumbing fixtures (but as the son of an energy geek, these items were well known to him). Finally, Duke’s Smart Saver program offers residential customers financial incentives for purchases of select energy efficient heating and air conditioning products as well as home air leakage reduction services and insulation upgrades.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I acted as an auditor for Duke Energy’s Home Energy House Call (HEHC) program, during which time I visited nearly fifty homes throughout the Piedmont. Free for Duke Energy customers that own their own home (more about the HEHC program can be found here), the program features a visit by an energy expert who performs an abbreviated energy audit, as well as the distribution of an energy efficiency kit and additional CFLs upon request. The typical house call takes between 45 and 60 minutes, with visual inspections of heating and cooling systems and insulation levels taking precedence. Homeowners are interviewed on their energy usage habits, and then receive a customized report that can be used to increase the comfort and efficiency of their home.

For someone who is more accustomed to residential new construction testing, the experience of face-to-face communication with homeowners in homes built between the years of 1920 and 2008 was as rewarding as it was diverse. The houses I visited ranged from 800 square foot bungalows to 7,200 square foot mansions. When asked about the prime reason for scheduling the house call,  I estimate that approximately 50% attributed the appointment to high bills, 25% to comfort-related issues, and the remaining 25% to the desire for a general discussion on energy efficiency.  Though time management was a bit tricky during the first three to five days, I soon developed a rhythm that allowed me to thoroughly answer questions and address concerns while still accomplishing all items on the to-do list.

The homeowners were as diverse as the homes that I visited. While some people declined the free CFLs (one cited the dangers of mercury as a prime factor), most were very excited to replace their incandescent bulbs and begin saving money immediately. I was very encouraged to see the overwhelming desire to reduce electrical consumption and the overall interest in residential energy efficiency. Indeed, several customers will most likely pursue advanced home performance  diagnostic testing (a comprehensive home energy audit or duct leakage testing) in the near future. It was extremely gratifying to assist people struggling with expensive bills; in one instance I discovered a very large leak in a supply duct in the homeowner’s crawl space, which, when sealed, will result in significant savings. I was also able to identify an air sealing point at another home with an attached garage that will lead to heightened levels of indoor air quality and health and safety for the occupants.

But most of all, I feel very grateful to have had such a tremendous learning experience, seeing various construction styles, materials, and heating and cooling systems that I had not seen before, while helping homeowners increase the comfort, durability, and energy efficiency of their homes. Humans often focus on the negative, and with respect to large companies or other entities, on the products or services they lack. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate the minor victories. When American homeowners get excited about saving money and reducing their carbon footprint, everyone wins, and if the public utility is a driving force in making this happen, then more power to them.

 Sources:

(1) http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/xls/table1.xls

(2) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c01.html

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