How can we work on energy efficiency while physical distancing?
Physical distancing requires many energy efficiency activities to be put on hold. Businesses and homeowners alike, have stopped energy improvement projects. Program administrators have halted activities with in-person interactions, such as the installation of new equipment or energy assessments. We know that energy efficiency delivery organizations and their larger partner networks are facing layoffs.
At the time of writing, the period in which physical distancing measures will need to last is still an unknown. After the health crisis, the government will need to implement a massive economic recovery plan. For a discussion on the role of energy efficiency in economic recovery, see this companion blog. The purpose of this blog is to start a discussion about what activities can occur while physical distancing measures are in place – to maintain delivery capabilities and perhaps even explore ways to deliver efficiency in a faster and more turn-key way in the future.
First, we know there is a risk that energy efficiency organizations will not be able to rapidly scale up if they cannot retain a capable team. At the time of writing, the federal government has followed other nations by offering a 75% wage subsidy for small and medium sized businesses. Hopefully this will help energy efficiency businesses maintain and grow workforce capabilities, and offer an effective means of financial support for workers that takes pressure off Canada’s EI system.
This is also a time when energy efficiency organizations could explore alternative program delivery models and performance objectives. Below, I discuss the potential for training, virtual energy assessments, and planning for recovery. I’m sure there are other ideas out there, which is why I invite you to continue the discussion.
This could be a time for a big push on upgrading skills to participate in a green economy. While hands-on training is often preferred, there are a variety of on-line options that can be explored. We are already seeing training organizations like the Canadian Institute for Energy Training, the Canada Green Building Council, and Passive House Canada ramping up online offerings. Add to this the growing number of virtual training platforms, such as Guides.co.
The government could help by providing direct support for training and clearly signalling that green building skills will be in demand. In their pre-budget submission, the Canada Green Building Council called for a $500 million investment in training. Given the unprecedented amount of idle labour created by the health crisis, this sum could be expanded considerably.
Virtual energy assessments
While many efficiency program activities are halted, program administrators are continuing to accept applications. Traditionally, energy assessments have occurred in person, but there is growing interest in virtual energy assessments. These consist of compiling data from homeowners, meters, geographical information systems, thermal images etc. to estimate energy performance and determine areas for improvement.
With people spending more time at home, there could be increased interest in assessing home performance and planning for future upgrades. If an assessment can be done virtually, it would enable a more turn-key approach that will help meet the national objective to expand energy labelling.
If physical distancing lasts for a prolonged period, program administrators and regulators could establish objectives associated with participant intake and energy labels instead of energy savings through physical installations.
Plan, plan, plan
Given the scale of public investment likely required for recovery, we must think big when it comes to creating a sustainable and energy efficient economy. Planning for recovery can start now, and it would be helped along by a clear signal from the government that there will be strong demand for energy efficiency and sustainable energy in the future.
The Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance suggested creating a regional green bank network that would spur an ‘on the ground’ market for energy retrofits. This initiative could be launched via the competition to create “four long-term funds” for deep retrofits of large buildings, mentioned in ministerial mandate letters, or through funding structures that already exist. Given the need for economic recovery, these funds should be expanded dramatically to capture the $250-$300 billion investment opportunity identified by the Expert Panel. We should start work on this now, so a green investment strategy is ready to go when it is needed.
Energy policymakers should consider announcing other initiatives and competitions. To spur long-term economic recovery and to meet the climate change challenges over the next decade, we need to retrofit almost every building, which means more than tripling the current annual rate of retrofits. Doing this will require entirely different approaches to logistics, marketing, financing, and manufacturing that can achieve deeper energy savings, at lower cost, and much faster. We are seeing the potential of large-scale, area-based, retrofit initiatives in social housing. Now, we need to develop the approaches that can achieve retrofits at scale across a variety of different building types.
The government could launch a large number of demonstration projects, all taking different approaches to large-scale retrofits (e.g. 500+ houses at a time, large blocks of multi-unit residential buildings). A diverse group of stakeholders, such as building owners, contractors, marketers, or community finance initiatives, are still able to organize now, so they are ready to contribute to economic recovery later. These planning activities could be enabled through a business development or what some have called a “retrofit readiness” fund.
We can also start planning for the introduction of the new tiered building code, that takes us toward net-zero energy ready buildings. British Columbia has already shown that concerted stakeholder outreach and education, and the development of simple, clear, and accessible materials is key for municipalities and builders to adopt higher standards, and advancing building codes was a prominent part of President Obama’s stimulus plan.