Performance-Based Ordinances Advance Residential Energy Efficiency

Third-Party Solutions are Sometimes Best

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Yael Gichon is residential sustainability coordinator for the city of Boulder, Colo.

Laura Hutchings is president of Populus Sustainable Design Consulting in Boulder, Colo.

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 1:30 pm

The city of Boulder, Colo. has developed a program to take the hassle out of energy efficiency for homeowners - including rental-property owners - that relies on the use of an energy consulting firm. With its one-stop-shop approach, EnergySmart has since gone countywide, fueled by funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and a local tax on energy bills.

Yael Gichon is the residential sustainability coordinator for the city of Boulder.

"What we've found over the years is that people would get energy audits through some of our programs and the report would sit on their kitchen counter for six months before they would do anything with it," she said. "Here, someone shows up at your door to take you through the process from A to Z, from the energy audit to bids from contractors, even fill out rebate paperwork."

Dealing with thousands of existing homes as well as those in the planning stages is labor intensive so the city and county have contracted with Populus, an energy-efficiency consulting firm based in Boulder, to provide the staffing to implement the program.

"The city isn't necessarily in the business of administering programs to the level that Populus is doing," Gichon said. "We have limited staff resources, so it would be tricky for us to set up a whole call center and a whole department of perhaps 20 people to run this program."

The firm has also played an integral role in the development of the city's performance-based energy codes. These are a break from the traditional, prescriptive approach to regulations, which specifically identify, for instance, the levels of insulation or level of efficiency that mechanical systems must attain.

Laura Hutchings is president of Populus.

"Performance-based energy codes have evolved from that approach," she said. "The performance approach looks at the structure as a whole and says, ‘We don't care how you get there, we just want to know that the level of efficiency overall is achieved.'"

When a home is still in the planning phase, Populus provides energy models of the proposed plans and provides advice on systems and specifications so the house will perform the way the client wants.

"Through that process we provide in-the-field testing to confirm that the house is performing the way we expected," Hutchings said.

The firm has also developed a unique program for the city - SmartRegs - to help landlords make their properties more energy efficient. That program is important in a college town - home to the University of Colorado - where rental property makes up more than half of the city's housing stock.


In 2002, the city of Boulder passed a resolution, in support of the Kyoto Resolution, which set a goal of reducing the community's greenhouse gas emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012. To achieve that goal, it approved its Climate Action Plan, in 2006. It states that the city's primary role is, " act as a facilitator, educator, and to promote market transformation for energy efficiency and renewable energy products and services."

Over the ensuing years, a series of programs were developed to achieve those ends. On the residential side they ranged from public education efforts and energy audits to installing compact fluorescent lights and low-flow shower heads in homes.

"As the program has evolved, each year we try to make it better. We really work to understand the barriers people face as they try to make their homes more energy efficient," Gichon said.

The EnergySmart program is the latest in this overall effort.


At the same time that the city approved the Climate Plan, the citizens of Boulder approved a Carbon Tax to fund its programs. It's essentially an additional tax on electric bills. Meanwhile, as the city was developing its EnergySmart program, Boulder County received a $25 million grant from the Department of Energy through the ARRA to fund a whole suite of programs.

The county took over the administration of the EnergySmart program and made it countywide using funds from the DOE grant while the city focused money from the Carbon Tax on the SmartRegs program for rental property.

But there is a time limit on these dollars. Both the federal grant and the city's Carbon Tax sunset in 2013.

"We are in the early phases of this program, but we've had discussions on how to make it sustainable long term," Gichon said. "Right now the incentives are really heavy. There's a lot of money for a homeowner to participate. They get a really good deal on the services."

Gichon says that there appears to be support in the community for the Carbon Tax so she is hopeful that that funding stream will be continued.


Populus is under contact with Boulder County to run the EnergySmart program, which includes a call center and a pool of energy auditors and energy advisors. To take advantage of the program, a homeowner can contact the call center or sign up at the EnergySmart website.

"They answer some screening questions to make sure they are put onto the right pathway and then they'll have an energy auditor and an energy advisor assigned to them, who will show up on site," Gichon said.

The energy auditor does a technical analysis of the property while the advisor walks the homeowner through the process and does some quick installs of some low-cost energy saving devices such as compact florescent lights, low-flow shower heads, programmable thermostats and other appropriate devices. The advisor also helps translate the energy audit and walk the homeowner through the process, so they can decide on the best package of recommendations.

"Then the advisor assists the homeowner with bids for any of the work they want to get done, and fills out rebate paperwork," Gichon said. "It's like a concierge service."


More than 50 percent of the housing stock in the city of Boulder is rental property. The city recently passed an ordinance containing rental-housing energy requirements. The bulk of the residential Carbon Tax pays for extra incentives and services for rental housing through the EnergySmart Program.

"In most cases the landlord owns the property and the renter pays the utility bills, so there's not necessarily an incentive for landlords to upgrade their property in relation to energy efficiency," Gichon said. "There are some rental properties that are in very good condition, but in general they don't tend to be in as good condition as owner-occupied properties."

There are sets of regulations found around the country called Rental Energy Conservation Ordinances or RECOs. Gichon said they wanted to develop the next generation of RECO. Working with Populus, they created SmartRegs.

"It essentially passed in September and has a requirement that all rental housing meet a certain standard of energy efficiency by the end of 2018. So there's an eight-year phase in," she said. One of the selling points to build momentum for the program is all the funding that is available through the DOE grant and the Carbon Tax.

"There're lots of incentives in the first three years to encourage people to come in early and not wait until 2018," Gichon said. "The money is here now. We want people to get moving on it."

Rating System

The ordinance itself has two pathways: There's a prescriptive pathway and a performance pathway.

"The prescriptive pathway was essentially based on a performance standard and that's where our consultants came in; Populus - Laura and her partner David Neiger - developed this," Gichon said.

After researching different performance standards to provide a basis, they decided to use the Home Energy Rating System (HERS), which was designed for the mortgage industry and provided a way to measure the energy performance of a house. For instance, a new home that is built to today's national energy code comes in at 100 on the Home Energy Rating System. The lower the score, the better the energy performance.

"The problem for rental housing, however, is that it could be expensive to get the rating. So what Populus did was targeted a HERS level of 120, which is 20-percent less efficient than today's energy code, because it's existing housing," Gichon said. "Some of our housing stock was built in the early 1900s, some of it in the ‘80s and newer."

Then the consultants designed a checklist that includes the different elements of a property, from the walls and attic to the mechanical system and water heater. Each is weighted with different point values based on the carbon intensity of the fuel that is used and the effect on the overall performance of the home. The numbers are plugged into a checklist that produces a customized "score" of the individual home, based on the HERS level of 120.

"Codes that require energy modeling are generally for new construction, major remodels or additions. For the Rental Code, we basically created a paper checklist, where we identify the different levels of insulation, inspect the house and assess the baseline conditions," Hutchings said. "It's less accurate, but it saves a lot of time and cost. An inspector can do it in maybe an hour and have a very quick way to assess the house and see what improvements it might need."

Community Buy-In

Public understanding of this process, and especially its benefits, are critical.

"The way that Populus has done it in the past has been through hands-on experience. We do training with architects and builders before these codes go into place," Hutchings said. "They see behind the screen and get a sense of exactly what's happening. It demystifies things, which makes people feel a lot more comfortable."

In the process, they can see how often they are actually constructing efficient homes already and the consultants can often identify more cost-effective ways of doing things.

The performance-based approach is more flexible than the more restrictive, prescriptive codes that have traditionally been used. It's a system that allows voluntary trade offs. For instance, if the builder wants to have more windows, perhaps they just increase the efficiency of the HVAC system or the level of insulation.

"Going through that process lets them know that there are cost-effective ways they can comply with these codes, and in addition there's flexibility," Hutchings said.

Gichon said that community buy-in also has a great deal to do with the culture of the community. Do people believe that it is important?

"You will have competing priorities and it's not always a top priority for people. They might not understand the benefits of a more comfortable home or lower utility bills," she said. "It's making that connection for people so it becomes a priority for them to do it."

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