Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series on overcoming barriers to customers implementing energy-efficiency improvements.
The key to successful energy-efficiency upgrades—and, therefore, to happy customers—is proper equipment selection, installation and user orientation, if needed. All of which require a qualified contractor who is committed to saving customers energy. While finding enough such vendors to support an energy-efficiency program continues to be a challenge, utilities now have more resources to help them cultivate trade allies.
As with project financing [link to story re-posted on Breaking News], the strategy a utility uses to develop a contractor pool depends on specific factors—the size and population of the service territory, local regulations, the measures a utility chooses to promote. No one size fits all (yes, that phrase again), but the number of utility program models is growing, along with educational programs to train the next generation of contractors.
Many utility programs require customers to hire contractors from a list of preferred vendors, though the qualifications for being included on the list vary greatly. Contractors doing work for Midwest Energy’s How$mart program must simply sign an agreement to install the utility-prescribed measures according to local building code. Fort Collins Utilities’ Home Efficiency Program requires contractors to attend orientation and specialized training, maintain Better Business Bureau accreditation and meet certain insurance requirements. Utilities generally contract with a third-party business or nonprofit organization to provide training.
Where there is a large and diverse labor pool, utilities may allow customers to hire their own contractors to install prescribed measures, but follow up with an inspection by a certified provider. That’s how Platte River Power Authority on Colorado’s Front Range operates its Building Tune-up program for commercial buildings. An approved retrocommissioning service provider identifies ways to improve a building’s efficiency and oversees the projects implemented by contractors the customer chooses.
Platte River takes this approach because retrocommissioning is a specific skill, but post-installation inspections also provide quality assurance—an important step in successful energy-efficiency projects. A knowledgeable utility employee or another third-party energy services professional may perform the inspection.
Growing the skills
Even in a metropolitan area, however, energy services experts and contractors experienced in energy-efficiency measures don’t grow on trees. That is slowly changing, thanks to programs emerging around the country to train and certify contractors in energy-efficient building practices.
Volunteers participating in the Community Energy Exchange mentoring event at Easter Seals Rocky Mountain Village in Empire, Colo., prepare to do a blower door test on a camp cabin. The event taught basic energy auditing and weatherization skills while improving the efficiency and safety of camp buildings. (Photo by Community Energy Exchange)
Nonprofit organizations like Affordable Comfort Inc. (ACI) and Electric & Gas Industries Association (EGIA) offer a full menu of webinars and workshops highlighting best practices in the home performance industry. They work with the Building Performance Institute (BPI), the nation’s standards setting and credentialing organization for energy efficiency retrofit work, to raise the bar in home performance contracting.
Regional, state and local groups often team up with these national organizations to put on training and networking events in their own territories. Partnering offers local businesses, utilities and educators a way to increase their reach and resources while addressing the issues specific to their own situation.
Community colleges, with their focus on job readiness, are finding a niche with “green building” programs. Given California’s leadership in energy efficiency, it is not surprising that Los Angeles Community College boasts a cutting-edge sustainable building program. Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colo., is building a green collar workforce with degree and certificate programs across a range of sustainability disciplines. Even in Utah, where energy prices are relatively low, Salt Lake City Community College’s Green Academy offers a lengthy list of certificates in renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies.
On the private side, Everblue Training Institute, a nationwide continuing education institute, partners with BPI, Energy Star, the U.S. Green Building Council and several universities to advance green building skills. Colorado-based Lightly Treading targets both consumers and contractors, offering energy services to the former and training and exam proctoring for BPI certification to the latter. This two-pronged approach is one way to make sure that you have qualified contractors to meet your customers’ needs.
Local nonprofit organizations are another avenue for developing the building performance workforce. Sustainable Ideas has partnered with many of the industry associations, schools and businesses noted above to design mentoring and training programs, and do some good in the community in the process. Through its Community Energy Exchange, auditors and contractors have sharpened their skills on projects that improve safety and energy efficiency in low-income housing and nonprofit facilities.
But first, demand
Of course, contractors won’t sign up for training unless they see a consumer demand for energy efficiency. That requires nothing short of market transformation, a seemingly glacial process. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act moved the ball forward by funding state and local programs that raised consumer awareness about energy-efficiency measures, and created a demand for contractors to install them.
Energy Upgrade California is one of those stimulus-funded programs. Local governments, municipalities and utilities created an umbrella initiative to help homeowners make energy-saving improvements, and to give local contractors the opportunity to learn new skills. All contractors participating in Energy Upgrade must complete mandatory orientation session workshops and hold a Whole-House Home Energy Rating System Certification. Over the year that the program has been in operation, 507 contractors have fulfilled the requirements to become Energy Upgrade vendors.
The Home Energy Makeover Contest is a good tool for raising both consumer and contractor awareness by showing how energy retrofits create a positive cash flow. Winning homes are selected for their potential to show how efficiency upgrades can reduce energy consumption. Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Colorado pioneered the promotion, and BPI now sponsors contests with utilities around the country. The contests have helped to increase awareness of home performance assessment and retrofit services, which in turn contributes to more people earning BPI certification—currently at about 22,000 individuals.
Before the contest takes place, BPI recommends that sponsors conduct contractor outreach and training. Contractor networking events like the Rocky Mountain Contractor Exchange might be held as a precursor to a makeover contest, or presented as an annual regional event to build interest and momentum.
No standard certification
The last piece of the puzzle is developing nationally recognized professional certifications, so customers can make informed decisions when hiring contractors—a challenge that won’t disappear any time soon.
More than 100 organizations nationwide are working with the home performance industry to establish guidelines for quality work, effective training and professional certifications. Unfortunately, like building codes, every jurisdiction has its own unique needs and its own ideas about what is important. Expect this challenge to be with the industry for some time to come.
That being said, utilities that have, or want to launch, a retrofit program should get to know what kind of skills exist in the local contractor pool and start building a network. The resources in this story only scratch the surface so there is no need to wait to reap the benefits energy-efficiency upgrades offer customers, power providers, the economy and the environment.