A Rising Star

The nation’s nearly 130 million homes generate more than 20 percent of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. Combine that with roughly 75 billion square feet of commercial, industrial and institutional space, and the carbon footprint grows exponentially. Even though the protracted recession stalled new construction, retrofitting current prime stock into energy-efficient property provides an unprecedented opportunity for electrical contractors in communities large and small.

The keys to successfully navigating the new economy’s choppy waters are keeping a vigilant eye on federal and state incentives, diversifying company expertise, and positioning leading-edge technologies to meet a growing demand for a greener existence.

Michael Stuart, senior product marketing manager, Fluke Thermography, Everett, Wash., applauds electrical contractors who have repurposed their businesses to take better care of existing customers and incorporated skillsets to generate alternative sustainable revenue.

“Tax credits alone won’t work. We need some kind of a system in place,” Stuart said.

One niche business system that Stuart and other industry experts tout is learning and applying the principles of building science. This discipline starts with an energy audit, is followed up by the implementation of load-reduction measures and closes the loop with the installation of renewable-energy systems.

“We’re not talking just about using an infrared camera to see what the insulation in the windows looks like. It’s also a power quality standpoint. Who’s going to be able to do that better than an electrician? There is a market here, and there is money here,” Stuart said.

If there is too much hesitancy or conservatism to embrace this opportunity, electrical contractors risk getting caught flat footed in an emerging market where their presence is critical, said Bernie Kotlier, director of green energy solutions for the California Labor Management Cooperation Committee, a joint partnership of the National Electrical Contractors Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“We have a great opportunity to be more proactive, to be trained and to be experts in new technologies earlier, to be part of the industry infrastructure that develops the codes, standards and practices,” Kotlier said.

The grass is getting greener
According to Kotlier, there is increasing activity in emerging sustainable technologies nationally, and numerous initiatives promote smarter resource consumption.

“Even though we don’t have an energy bill in [Congress], we’re still seeing tremendous growth and public support. We’re also seeing very strong adoption rates not just for what people think of as green energy, like solar and wind, but also for energy efficiency,” Kotlier said.

Several recent studies and reports point to retrofits as one of the growing bright spots in a sluggish economy. Lower energy costs, healthier living and improved indoor and outdoor environments are increasingly demanded by and available to homebuyers at all income levels, according to preliminary findings from a survey released recently by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and McGraw-Hill Construction. The survey found that 78 percent of homeowners earning less than $50,000 per year would be more inclined to purchase a green home.

More than 80 percent of commercial building owners allocated funds to green initiatives in 2009, according to “2008 Green Survey: Existing Buildings,” a survey jointly funded by Incisive Media’s Real Estate Forum, GlobeSt.com, the Building Owners and Managers Association International and the USGBC. Approximately 45 percent planned to increase sustainability investments in 2009.
Incentivizing electrical contractors and customers

Numerous national and state tax credits and other incentives are intended to establish a foundation for a stronger work force, better efficiency and more comprehensive work for those electricians who diversify their offerings.

Nationally, the International Revenue Service (IRS) published new guidance on Code Section 25C that allowed up to a $1,500 tax credit for homeowners installing energy-efficient windows, insulation and other qualifying products in 2009 and 2010. The 25C tax was extended through 2011 but has been reduced to a $500 tax credit.

On a federal level, Vice President Joe Biden’s “Recovery Through Retrofit” program helped spur the Department of Energy’s (DOE) new Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades and the creation of a home energy performance score pilot program. These initiatives build on the $80 billion allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to expand the home energy efficiency and retrofit market.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged Congress to “give rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy efficient.” New legislation was introduced reaffirming his administration’s commitment to save energy and create jobs through the Home Star Energy Efficiency Act of 2010, a national retrofit and jobs creation bill and its commercial equivalent, S. 3079 Building Star Energy Efficiency Act of 2010.

Aimed at recovering the construction industry through retrofit rebates, the Alliance to Save Energy reported estimates that the two proposals would create more than 300,000 construction jobs. According to the 2,600-member Home Star Coalition, a partnership of energy-efficiency organizations, contractors and manufacturers, the Senate’s original S. 3434 Home Star legislation became incorporated into S. 3663 Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act, which sailed through the House but failed to pass in the Senate last July despite bipartisan support. Building Star was introduced and parked with the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Supporters still believe both bills will gain traction in the 2011 Congress as sustainable initiatives offering economic, societal and environmental benefits in one package. In the interim, said Building Performance Institute (BPI) CEO Larry Zarker, a lot of similar legislation has been introduced at the state level as federal leadership and support waned.

“California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and several other states have programs that provide the prescriptive path Silver Star level and the more performance path Gold Star level incentives, and I think there’s going to be a lot of attention to help the state programs develop,” Zarker said.

Fluke’s Stuart cautioned that the current incentives are not designed to clear out the “low-hanging fruit” of inefficiency.

“They’re for buying the low-energy appliance, the new window or the brand-new roof. That’s all good, but that doesn’t get us far enough and definitely doesn’t assuage the fears of the consumer or the contractor that needs to invest in the training and equipment to do this kind of work.”

Rebuilding the baseload
The enormous prospect of retrofitting the nation’s residential and nonresidential space begins with an energy audit, said Kotlier, who recently launched the Facilities Auditing Education Program. Kotlier has observed an almost upside-down approach to retrofits as some sales of renewable-energy units occur sans audit or load reduction.

“Energy efficiency is a much better return on investment,” Kotlier said. “Starting with an audit only makes sense. Would a doctor perform surgery without an exam or a diagnosis first?”

Kotlier said there is a clear and logical loading order that helps electrical contractors and their customers put tax dollars to work efficiently:

1. Perform an audit or survey.
2. Implement measures to reduce load.
3. Install appropriate renewable systems.

The Building Performance Institute’s Home Energy Auditing Standard is the basis for BPI’s Energy Auditor Certification and provides guidelines for the energy-auditing profession.

“The goal of this standard is to direct the energy auditor to develop a comprehensive list of measures, which lead to whole-building, science-based energy improvements to existing low-rise residential buildings,” BPI’s Zarker said.

Unlike Home Star, this energy audit also evaluates lighting efficiency and alternatives.

Kotlier and colleagues, with the support of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, regional utilities and lighting manufacturers have also developed emerging and sustainable technology training programs that assist electrical contractors with retrofit practices. The California Advanced Lighting Controls Training Program (CALCTP) is a statewide initiative aimed at improving energy efficiency through the use of lighting controls in commercial buildings and industrial facilities.

A model gaining interstate momentum, CALCTP will educate, train and certify licensed electrical contractors and state certified general electricians in the proper design, installation and commissioning of these advanced control systems.

Even if electrical contractors choose not to perform audit work up front, there are still opportunities through partnership, said Fluke’s Stuart.

“If they hook up with an auditor, I can guarantee they will be doing retrofit lighting, electrical work and power studies,” he said. “There’s a lot of business to go around and very few individuals or companies out there who can do everything.”

High-performance technologies and ideas

Several emerging technologies and concepts will help shape the retrofit market, said Roland Risser, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Building Technologies program manager.

“You’re going to see a lot more heat pumps across the country. In some cases, they’re up to 50 percent more efficient than other technologies,” Risser said.

The DOE is working on a long-term project to develop low-cost wireless sensors that send information to a central point over radio waves or powerline carriers to maintain the balance and optimal performance of systems in a building.

As more electric utilities install smart meters that use communication gateways to access home and commercial building diagnostics systems, Risser projects some interesting developments.

“If you’re watching TV, you could get a screen message saying that the compressor is going out on your refrigerator. The notice lists the stores that sell comparative refrigerators within a 10-mile radius and provides payback scenarios. You click your remote to select a repairman visit or to receive information on new refrigerators,” Risser said.

Kotlier said another emerging technology on the horizon is renewable-energy storage, which is currently the focus of electric vehicle manufacturers.

“It’s a really critical aspect because most of our renewables are not consistent with 24/7 generation. There isn’t a huge demand for storage yet, but it’s a situation where electrical contractors can position themselves for a technology on the cusp of growing into something significant,” Kotlier said.

Finally, BPI’s Zarker pointed out there is an energy dialogue about the possibility of developing a tool to verify a home’s energy level. Perhaps, said Zarker, there’s a performance label placed on a home’s electrical panel for realtors, appraisers and future homeowners to reference.

“It makes you think, why wouldn’t an electrician have some role in that?” Zarker said.

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at mcclung@iowatelecom.net.

About the Author

Debbie McClung

Freelance Writer
Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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