A Creative New Approach to Saving Energy: Having Small and Medium-Sized Cities Compete

Over the years, NRDC has worked on a variety of policies to promote energy efficiency, recognizing that there is no silver bullet that will solve all of our energy efficiency problems at once.

NRDC’s efforts have focused on getting energy-saving codes and standards for buildings and appliances implemented, promoting utility regulation that encourages utilities to help their customers save energy, advocating financing reforms to support energy saving in America’s homes and businesses, and developing programs to promote continual improvement in energy use at a facility, such as a building or an industrial plant. But these are all broad approaches aimed at changing how markets work nationwide or in one state or city.

Today Georgetown University is announcing a new and complementary approach: a competition between different small and medium-sized cities to see how much energy they can save. This contest builds on the continual improvement model that we have been working on, in partnership with the Department of Energy, the American National Standards Institute, and the International Organization for Standardization.

What is new is that the Georgetown University Energy Prize program asks cities to compete on continual improvement of the energy use per utility customer across the entire community. Instead of trying to select a particular type of approach, Georgetown is challenging communities to come up with individual approaches and will then judge them on the bottom line: how much energy are they saving?

The main energy efficiency outcomes that the competition is based on can be achieved through home retrofits—adding insulation or better equipment and windows, sealing or replacing duct systems, etc., so homes don’t waste as much energy. These programs have not been particularly successful in the past unless large sums of money were expended in the form of financial incentives to home owners, which has not happened except in a few demonstration projects undertaken 20 and 30 years ago. More recent results are that some 100,000 homes were retrofit last year, which sounds like a lot until you do the math and realize that at this rate it would take until the year 3000 to finish the job nationwide.

 The $5 million Georgetown competition seeks to change this by encouraging experimentation by local agencies that may have some original ideas. Furthermore, previous home retrofit programs have looked exclusively on the technical aspects of home energy efficiency, such as insulation and stopping air leakage from ducts, essentially ignoring the potential for saving energy through better operation (such as making sure lights are off when not needed) or through conservation (accepting lower levels of energy service such as cooler temperatures in wintertime). The Georgetown competition allows communities to consider all three methods of saving energy--or something completely different.

The Georgetown competition was developed in consultation with an advisory committee of stakeholders and technical and policy experts. As one of the advisors, I am pleased to see the outcome: a new approach that could break a 30-year logjam on how to do home retrofits.