A group of people of color standing outside posing for the camera with excitement and their arms in the air.

Lessons from a New Effort to Scale Energy Efficiency in Boston

One of the most difficult groups to engage in energy efficiency is low- and moderate-income families. Into this gap steps Renew Boston, a one-stop shop to help Boston residents and businesses get into the energy-saving game at no cost.

Massachusetts leads the nation in energy efficiency (see "Massachusetts Named Most Energy Efficient State (Again)") because its per-capita spending on energy efficiency is higher than any other state.

With some of the oldest housing stock in the country this is money well spent. The potential for reducing energy use (and associated emissions) saving money and creating new jobs is all significant.

Indeed many are already seeing these kinds of benefits. Yet many are not. For various reasons one of the most difficult groups to engage in this work is low- and moderate-income families – even though their participation is critical if Boston and Massachusetts are to hit their aggressive targets for reducing emissions.

This is why Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino established Renew Boston which was conceived as a one-stop shop to help Boston residents and businesses get into the energy-saving game at no cost. Working with its partners NSTAR, National Grid, and MassSave, Renew Boston coordinates energy assessments it helps identify rebate and incentive programs and it also helps coordinate implementation of actual energy efficiency improvements.

Mayor Menino Renew Boston team and beneficiary family

Between August 2010 and April 2012 Renew Boston conducted energy assessments in 6500 income-eligible households (60%-120% of the state median income) – in addition to its work with city businesses. Roughly half of those receiving energy assessments implemented some or all of the recommendations using utility rebates and federal stimulus funds to pay for the upgrades.

To get a better understanding of what worked and what didn't Barr commissioned the Cambridge-based Goodman Research Group to conduct an independent assessment. Their full report is available for download below but here are some of their key findings about progress at the end of the evaluation period in April 2012 (and we know even more households received weatherization benefits by the time the last job that used federal stimulus funds was completed in August 2012):

  • 33% of participants in the data set implemented all of the recommendations from their home energy assessment
  • An additional 18% implemented at least some of the recommendations
  • Energy efficiency must be "sold": Appeals to environmental values or information about the availability of inexpensive loans are not sufficient. Direct rebates and clear savings are needed.
  • Customer service matters: Online retailers like Amazon and Zappos have figured out how to engage customers in dynamic ways through recommendations customer reviews and a high quality customer service experience. While projects like home insulation are always going to be more complicated than most online purchases, there are still many opportunities to make it easier and convenient for consumers to get a great retrofit, and to have an experience that is so positive they want to tell friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues about it.
  • Multi-family units remain a challenge: Condos and apartment buildings present unique challenges and require specialized approaches.
  • Community and neighbor mobilization is essential: Trusted nonprofits and other community-based organizations can play a vital role getting everyone into the energy-saving game.
  • "Pre-weatherization" issues can be a deal breaker: Sometimes things like ventilation problems or antiquated wiring can be an impasse. Without supports for such "pre-weatherization" issues, many low- and moderate-income families will fall through the cracks of efficiency programs.

Read the Full Evaluation Report

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