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Deep Energy Retrofits Are Often Misguided

It’s time for energy retrofit specialists to overcome their prejudice against PV systems

Posted on Mar 28 2014 by Martin Holladay

All through the 1980s and 1990s, a small band of North American believers worked to maintain and expand our understanding of residential energy efficiency. These were the pioneers of the home performance field: blower-door experts, weatherization contractors, and “house as a system” trainers. At conferences like Affordable Comfort, they gathered to share their knowledge and lick their wounds.

These pioneers understood what was wrong with American houses: They leaked air; they were inadequately insulated; they had bad windows; and their duct systems were a disaster.

Occasionally, these energy nerds would scoff at millionaire clients who were more interested in “green bling” — a phrase that usually described photovoltaic(PV) Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. panels — than they were in reducing air leaks in their home’s thermal envelope.

A shared belief

What I’ve just described is (in anthropological terms) a set of beliefs associated with a distinct subculture. Our tribe had a shared belief: that improving a home’s thermal envelope is preferable to installing renewable energy equipment.

Occasionally, a few facts would appear to undermine our belief system. For example, if a disinterested observer noted that a proposed envelope measure had a very long payback period, most members of our tribe would answer that the measure was a wise investment, because energy prices are likely to skyrocket in the future.

During the waning years of the last millennium, these North American beliefs crossed the Atlantic and were adopted by a group of academics in Darmstadt, Germany.

The beliefs became petrified in a set of rules called the PassivhausA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. standard.

Times have changed

Several factors have changed since these beliefs were first formulated. For one thing, fossil fuel prices have stayed low; for another, photovoltaic equipment has gotten dirt cheap.

The (sometimes painful) fact is that it is now hard to justify many energy-retrofit measures that energy experts still eagerly recommend. Moreover, solar bling now has a fast payback.

In short, the world has turned upside down.

The collapse of the deep energy retrofit movement

The first deep energy retrofit occurred in 1982, when Rob Dumont and Harold Orr lopped off the roof overhangs of a ranch house in Saskatoon. Interest in deep energy retrofits has waxed and waned since then; the movement had a mini-revival three or four years ago.

Even though true believers still hope to see millions of homes undergo deep energy retrofits, at this point the movement is dead in the water. The cost of these jobs is unjustifiable.

Even back in 1982, Dumont and Orr were far from enthusiastic proponents of the deep energy retrofit approach. In their report on the Saskatoon retrofit experiment, they wrote, “Without question, there are many instances in which economics, based on a cost-benefit analysis, would not support the application of [the chainsaw retrofit] measures described here.”

Expensive and risky

The point was further driven home at a presentation given by Paul Eldrenkamp and Mike Duclos at the recent BuildingEnergy 14 conference in Boston. Eldrenkamp is a remodeling contractor, and Duclos is an energy consultant; their presentation was titled, “Three Deep Energy Retrofits, Three Years Later.”

Endrenkamp shared detailed cost information on one of the three projects he discussed: a 5,600-square-foot duplex in Belmont, Massachusetts. The cost of the project’s energy-related work was $258,000.

Eldrenkamp noted that the payback period for many deep energy retrofit measures is quite long. He pointed out, for example, that when a designer specifies 4 inches of polyisoPolyisocyanurate foam is usually sold with aluminum foil facings. With an R-value of 6 to 6.5 per inch, it is the best insulator and most expensive of the three types of rigid foam. Foil-faced polyisocyanurate is almost impermeable to water vapor; a 1-in.-thick foil-faced board has a permeance of 0.05 perm. While polyisocyanurate was formerly manufactured using HCFCs as blowing agents, U.S. manufacturers have now switched to pentane. Pentane does not damage the earth’s ozone layer, although it may contribute to smog. for exterior walls, the last 2 inches of polyiso has a payback period of “maybe 160 years.”

He also noted that it’s very hard for a remodeling company to make any money on this type of work. “These projects are really expensive and really risky, and I don’t think they are a terrific business model,” said Eldrenkamp. “I feel no confidence that deep energy retrofits will get us very far in terms of the challenges we face. We have to come up with other tools. We have to make sure that our new buildings make sense; most of our new buildings make no sense."

Summing up, Eldrenkamp said, "We can’t do it with deep energy retrofits.”

Then Duclos chimed in: “We need to look at low-hanging fruit like lights and appliances.”

And Eldrenkamp responded, “Right. And focus on occupant behavior. And then install PV.”

The argument in favor of PV keeps getting stronger

This isn’t the first time that I’ve pointed out that installing a PV system makes more sense than investing in a deep energy retrofit. I wrote an article on the topic in 2010 (“Energy-Efficiency Retrofits: Insulation or Solar Power?”) and another article in 2012 (“The High Cost of Deep-Energy Retrofits”).

Every time I write about the topic, I realize that the economic argument has become even more compelling that the last time I looked into it. Natural gas has gotten cheaper; so have PV modules.

Overcoming our prejudices

There’s a moral to this story. It’s aimed at the tribe I belong to: the energy nerd tribe. It’s time that we faced up to our prejudices — especially our prejudice against solar equipment.

If you’re giving advice to middle-class homeowners who hope to lower their energy bills, start with an energy auditEnergy audit that also includes inspections and tests to assess moisture flow, combustion safety, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, and durability.. Once you’ve done the audit, run the numbers.

Assuming the house has an unshaded south-facing roof, it’s probable that the best energy-saving measure will prove to be the installation of some solar bling.

Two counterarguments

I anticipate that some readers of this blog will disagree with my conclusions. Here are two likely counterarguments:

Today's net-metering contracts are likely to change, so the payback period for PV is about to lengthen. This issue is political, not scientific, and it is clearly impossible to predict which way future political winds will blow. Nevertheless, I feel that any upcoming changes to net-metering contracts won't be significant enough to fundamentally change the direction of current trends regarding PV payback.

For more perspectives on this issue, see The Big Allure of Cheap PV, including the discussion in the comments posted at the bottom of the page.

It doesn't matter what it costs to perform a deep energy retrofit; we need to cut down on carbon emissions to save the planet, even if our efforts are costly. Of course, any homeowners who are committed to reducing their environmental impact are free to invest in a deep energy retrofit if they want, even if the payback period is 100 years or more. But from a policy perspective, such investments make little sense.

If a government wanted to create an enlightened environmental policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions, it wouldn't invest in deep energy retrofits. (Sadly, very few national governments are interested in reducing carbon emissions, but that's a topic for another blog.) There are countless examples of low-hanging fruit that could be picked if we wanted to develop better incentive programs to achieve carbon reductions: we could increase our investments in low-income weatherization programs, for example, or create better programs aimed at improving vehicle fuel efficiency or phasing out coal-fired power plants.

Deep energy retrofits don't appear anywhere near the top of such a list. From a policy perspective, every billion dollars spent on a low-yield carbon reduction measure is a billion dollars that isn't available to invest in a more logical approach to carbon reduction.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Stay Away from Foil-Faced Bubble Wrap.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

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Image Credits:

  1. National Grid
  3. Paul Eldrenkamp

Apr 2, 2014 8:02 PM ET

Response to Dana
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Thanks for clarifying which target you were referring to.
I can agree with many of the points you're making.
But I am skeptical that fairly recent reduction of electrical demand is largely due to efficiency measures and not due to more complex dynamics.
And I remain skeptical that a (ever more concerted) combined build-out of renewables combined with efficiency measures will achieve even the target you described.
Recent global data still indicates that despite [amazing in some cases] growth of renewable sources of energy, growth in fossil fuel production has also grown to the extent that renewables still only make up roughly the same proportion of the global energy mix as they did 20 years ago.
Speaking of "broil":

Growth in renewables, globally, have not displaced fossil carbon but have simply served to increase the size of the "hive" so to speak (what else should we expect from economic system obsessed with growth-at-any-cost?).
Clearly it is possible to observe differences in data at a national level, but in today's globalized economy it has become difficult to say with any credibility (some exceptions) that the people of other nations with a "dirtier" energy mix are solely responsible for those emissions (ie, when our own nations export to them the coal that they burn, or when we buy the stuff that they manufacture to meet our consumptive demands, or when we set an example of "first world" expectations from life that they desire for themselves).

So it becomes hard to see how we will ever make any serious effort to mitigate against worst case climate risks without overhauling not just our energy systems but our economic systems and cultural belief systems as well.
That "longage of expectations" is the banana in the monkey trap that we have to figure out how to let go of fast - the hunter is on its way.

Apr 2, 2014 9:55 PM ET

Sure about NG staying cheap?
by Andrew Henry

Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report

for week ending March 21, 2014 | Released: March 27, 2014 at 10:30 a.m.


Apr 2, 2014 10:05 PM ET

Shale Gas economics should be questioned
by Andrew Henry

From three and a half years ago...

Shale Gas—Abundance or Mirage? Why The Marcellus Shale Will Disappoint Expectations

Posted by Art Berman on October 28, 2010

From last month...

US shale gas and tight oil industry performance : challenges and opportunities

Ivan Sandrea, OIES Research Associate, March 2014, Oxford energy

Apr 2, 2014 10:48 PM ET

How then will these homes be heated?
by Andrew Henry

Solar isn't going to heat all those leaky, poorly insulated homes. The sun doesn't shine much in winter and it definitely doesn't at night. The days are short and cold, and the night is dark and colder, and the interior/exterior temperature gradient that much greater.

I've attached the supply/demand graph from EIA's Natural Gas Weekly. I don't think it's fully recognized how much energy is used to heat our homes!

And we definitely don't recognize how much we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels to meet our CO2e emission reduction obligations.

From Kevin Anderson's Open Letter to the EU Commission president about the unscientific framing of its 2030 decarbonisation target"

As the letter makes clear, for the EU to honour this commitment the Commission must find the courage to pursue an equitable and science-based 2030 decarbonisation target of around 80%. Anything less and the EU will renege on its 2°C commitments and, as the Commission rightly notes, bequeath to future generations a legacy of “devastating impacts”.

It's quite questionable that there will be enough gas to affordably heat the huge stock of inefficient homes. And as an alternative I can't see how putting PV on the roof of these homes will do it, I'd be happy to be shown how.

But if we're honestly going to address our obligation to subsequent generations then profoundly reducing the heating demand of the housing stock seems like the only option

Of course, some may not be concerned about kids' futures, but the present generation may not come off to well... a search on "agriculture and drought" on Bloomberg points out that our food system is already under some stress.

So at what cost does the payback of a Deep Energy Retrofit make sense? If we continue to externalize many real costs of our inefficient housing stock then of course a DER won't add up, but that means we are still not being honest about the real payback of a DER.

Look at it this way, it's a lot more likely that something like another Hurricane Sandy comes along and knocks down a neighbourhood of houses because we didn't make the effort to profoundly reduce their energy demand.

And when the likely storm caused blackout comes along, the retrofitted home is going to offer a lot more resilience and value to it's home-owner, and the community/municipality it is built in.

Finally, we're going to need to put PV on every south facing roof available, to meet our (greatly reduced) energy demand, but it will only be of use to heat our homes if our homes need very little heating.


Apr 3, 2014 9:45 AM ET

Edited Apr 4, 2014 5:24 AM ET.

Response to Lloyd Alter (Comment #49)
by Martin Holladay

I think that we agree more than we disagree. Your apparent disagreements are based on misreadings of what I wrote and on straw men that you have set up in order to facilitate your opposition to my writings.

I wrote that natural gas has gotten cheaper; you counter with the observation that the retail price for natural gas at your home hasn't dropped. Clearly, my generalization was not intended to cover every gas utility in North America. I am happy to stipulate that natural gas prices haven't dropped for every retail customer in every time frame one cares to look at. But if you want to look at natural gas price trends over the last 6 or 8 years, I think that there is a fair basis for my statement. (See the two graphs reproduced below.)

But clearly, either of us can provide evidence for rising or falling energy prices using the same data -- all we have to do is adjust the time frame of our analysis to create the data set that proves any point we care to make.

You wrote, "What will happen to electrical prices is unknown and will probably be pushed to after the next election. [Martin is] just wrong on that point." I've given up on predicting future energy prices, but evidently you haven't. Good luck with your predictions; you may be right, but predictions aren't data.

You wrote, "The fact is, deep energy retrofits have never made economic sense in terms of payback and are questionable building practice for a lot of older homes." I'm glad we agree on that point.

You wrote, "But reducing air leaks in their home’s thermal envelope certainly does make sense. There is a ton of low hanging fruit that people can do, from caulking to attic insulation to duct sealing to lighting to appliance changes that pay off fast. Martin doesn't say this." Heavens, Lloyd -- I've been saying almost nothing else for the last 15 years. This is a deliberate misrepresentation of what I have been advocating in my writings. Even in the article we're discussing, I wrote, "There are countless examples of low-hanging fruit that could be picked if we wanted to develop better incentive programs to achieve carbon reductions: we could increase our investments in low-income weatherization programs, for example..." Low-income weatherization consists of cost-effective energy-efficiency measures like the measures that you claim I'm ignoring.

You wrote, "[Martin] says, 'Assuming the house has an unshaded south-facing roof, it’s probable that the best energy-saving measure will prove to be the installation of some solar bling.' Just say no. First of all, It is ridiculous to say that people should put solar panels on their roof when they continue to live in cold draughty houses."

I never said that weatherization shouldn't be performed; in fact I explicitly endorsed weatherization. Your specter of a "cold drafty house" is a blatant straw man. Moreover, why shouldn't middle-class homeowners with an unshaded south-facing roof install a PV array? My brother just did. He lives in Massachusetts, and he is leasing the system for zero dollars down. He has been guaranteed electric bills that will be set at 80% or 90% of his current kWh rate, and at the end of the 15-year or 20-year contract (I forget which) he can either purchase the array at a steeply discounted price or allow the company that owns the panels to take them away. What's not to like? Zero dollars down, and cash flow savings from Day One. Of course homeowners want this deal. Homeowners instantly understand the advantages of this deal, and it's a mystery to me why green building advocates like you would write that installing such a PV array is "ridiculous." Why wouldn't a homeowner want a lower electric bill?

You wrote, "Such a theory only works for Americans who live in nice suburban houses with big roofs facing south." That's more or less what I wrote, Lloyd -- although the homes don't have to be nice; they can be crummy. And they can be suburban, rural, or even (in some cases) urban. All you need is an unshaded south-facing roof, and a contract for PV installation that makes economic sense.

I agree that added insulation makes a house more resilient, as you and Alex Wilson have pointed out. However, that fact doesn't undermine my arguments against $100,000 deep energy retrofits.

You wrote, "We simply can't afford the kind of land use that lends itself to useful rooftop solar." So what are you going to do, Lloyd -- make it illegal for people living in houses with unshaded south-facing roofs to install PV? Your point is irrelevant to my article. Of course people are only going to install PV in locations where these systems work.

You wrote, "A solar panel is not an alternative to having a properly sealed, insulated and weatherized house." Of course it isn't, Lloyd. I agree with you on that. And I never wrote anything to suggest that I didn't agree.


Natural gas prices.png Natural gas prices 2.jpg

Apr 3, 2014 10:06 AM ET

by Ed Dunn

I have mostly finished my energy retrofit on my 1154 square foot 1977 ranch style house in Flagstaff AZ (USDA 5). Being a designer/builder of sustainable homes, I did most of the work myself. I added 2" of foam to walls and stem down 2', along with 6" of foam to roof sheathing. I have dropped by NG costs 50% over ten years. This January, the bill was for 55 therms of NG for a home that is heated by a single freestanding gas space heater.
Still a little work to do on the wall between the garage and living room. I would estimate costs for the energy retrofit, including new Pella 3 panes (we chose these not just for energy efficiency but for great aesthetics, including the concealed blinds) would be about $11k. The rest of the costs would be attributed to the aesthetic changes. We now live in a very beautiful home.
Another important side benefit is the fact that we gained usable space and we are actually comfortable in our home. Two north bedrooms can be used year round in a place that has 6 months plus of winter weather. My wife used to dominate the dining room, next to the gas space heater, to use as her water color studio. She now has it confined to the coldest north west bedroom. My office, in the other room, where I would sometimes shiver from the cold while I did office and design work is now, also, usable year round.
This is an aesthetic quality issue and makes a home much more valuable, well worth it, to me and my wife. We basically have a new home for much less than building a new one. Comfort is often not mentioned as a reason to make a house tighter and better insulated. Surveys of what home owners want include granite counters and energy efficiency but you hardly ever see comfort listed (much less the idea of having usable space).

Apr 3, 2014 12:24 PM ET

Response to Andrew Henry
by Lucas Durand - 7A

How then will these homes be heated?

Maybe in part by having more people occupy the better enclosures that are available.

I'm guessing that eventually circumstances will require us to rediscover the benefits of "huddling together" for warmth.

Apr 3, 2014 12:26 PM ET

retrofits don't have to cost $1/4 million
by Ronn Lepage

You will be happy to know that Rob Dumont is alive and well and still helping make Saskatchewan a better place. We all understand that the most difficult challenge in a home retrofit is the building envelope. Vereco Homes is working with Rob to develop an exterior wall retrofit application(sWRAP) that significantly reduces the cost. We recently added ~R30 of insulation to the walls of a home in Saskatoon for under $15,000 (see

Apr 3, 2014 12:47 PM ET

Response to Tom Gocze (Comment #50)
by Martin Holladay

You describe a new home that included R-40 walls and an R-40 roof or ceiling. These levels of insulation make perfect sense in a new home, especially in a northern climate like the one in Maine.

You also wrote, "The northern tier of states can make a good case for highly insulated structures." I agree completely, especially for new construction (like the house you described).

However, it's still hard to justify a $100,000 deep energy retrofit.

Apr 3, 2014 12:54 PM ET

Edited Apr 3, 2014 12:56 PM ET.

Response to Andrew Henry (Comment #54)
by Martin Holladay

Q. "How then will these homes be heated? Solar isn't going to heat all those leaky, poorly insulated homes. The sun doesn't shine much in winter and it definitely doesn't at night."

A. GBA has lots of articles on space heating options. Clearly, PV power won't heat most homes. Options includes wood heat and natural gas; it's also possible to imagine a future in which wind-generated electricity provides much of the power for space heating needs using air-source heat pumps.

Your point that PV power won't heat homes in December and January is frankly irrelevant to the point I'm making: that an investment in a deep energy retrofit doesn't reduce energy bills as much per dollar invested as an investment in a PV array.

Finally, GBA has never said that homeowners who live in leaky, poorly insulated homes shouldn't fix them. Clearly, weatherization makes sense. Most weatherization work begins with blower-door-directed air sealing -- something that GBA has always advocated -- and also includes insulation improvements that are cost-effective.

Apr 3, 2014 1:11 PM ET

Response to Ed Dunn
by Martin Holladay

Congratulations on completing energy retrofit work at your own home at a cost of $11,000. It sounds like this investment was a good use of your money and time. Energy retrofit work of the type you describe makes a lot more sense than a $100,000 deep energy retrofit.

Apr 3, 2014 1:16 PM ET

Response to Ronn Lepage (Comment #58)
by Martin Holladay

This looks like a perfect candidate for new exterior wall insulation: a simple, one-story ranch without much decorative trim, and (apparently) adequate roof overhangs. If every house we were invited to work on looked like this, our work would be much simpler. Anyway, nice job -- at a very reasonable price.


Mckinlay house.jpg

Apr 3, 2014 6:08 PM ET

Repsonse to Lucas (#51)
by Dana Dorsett

While it's true that "the rise of the rest" has increased fossil fuel use worldwide more quickly than the developed world has been able to dial back, the aggressive policy implementation of renewabales in some quarters has renedered even some recently built fossil-burners uneconomic:

You are correct the factors behind faltering electricity demand are complex, but they are not a total enigma. While many or most people have presumed that the flat/falling demand curve has been just an artifact of the recession and warmer than average winters, more careful analysis shows that efficiency has been a primary underlying driver, at least in the residential & commercial sectors. It's part of a long term trend toward efficiency, but a trend that has been recently accelerating faster than the increase in end-use function:

This acceleration in the efficiency end seems to have legs, which is of significant concern to utilities and independent operators with generation assets that need to operate above a minimum capacity-factor to keep their business model healthy. (Georgia Power's foray into new nukes may prove to be a giantic albatross going forward.)

The arguments against distributed renewables that may have had a rationale 30 years ago are quickly evaporating. Just this week in not-so-sunny Minnesota, a utility-scale PV operator's project that was bidding against combined-cycle gas won and was approved simply on the economics. Similar thing have been happening with wind power as well. Year on year reductions in cost, and increases in turbine efficiency have made wind competitive with $5/MMBU combined-cycle gas, and will likely beat $4/MMBTU gas very shortly. Even in an increasing demand environment (which will eventually happen), meeting the demand with more fossil burners isn't anything like a clear winner anymore- we are in the midst of a massive disruption of the industry. Despite a large legacy base of fossil burners, there they are becoming less and less competitive going forward.

Yes, massive Chinese & Indian economic growth have driven fossil burning to greater heights, but even the growth won't go unfettered, and distributed renewables are as cheap and sensical there as in the already-developed world, and being installed and an accelerating pace now that the financial tipping point has been reached. The next 25 years won't look anything like the last 25 in terms of the renewable/fossil use ratio, whether policy makers steer the incentives toward renewables or not. But just how fast it happens will be influenced by policy makers, to be sure.

Apr 3, 2014 8:54 PM ET

Response to Dana.
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Thanks for the link.
I remain skeptical on that topic pending further investigation - I have read several other papers who's analysis incorporates some other factors and reaches different conclusions.
You won't ever hear me poo-poo distributed renewable generation, I've always suspected its time would come.
And while disruption within energy markets has certainly provided some interesting reading, so has the political backlash.

Though things are always changing, the fundamentals that drive what we could call aggregate global societal behaviour aren't really changing all that much, that quickly.
We humans are still as bold, exploitive and clueless about where we're actually headed as we've ever been, but I think there is always the temptation to think otherwise - despite the fact that this world we've made has become far more complex (and therefore far more unpredictable) than it has ever been in human history.

It suffices to say that the stakes are about as high as they can be and I'll take it easy and "have some faith in the system" when some of these discomforting robust long-term global trends have actually turned around (verifiably, in the rear-view mirror) - in particular this one:
You see, I am a product of my own training - in the air traffic control game, you don't usually get to play for very long by taking too much on faith.

Apr 3, 2014 10:06 PM ET

The Big Picture
by Andrew Henry


Your point that PV power won't heat homes in December and January is frankly irrelevant to the point I'm making: that an investment in a deep energy retrofit doesn't reduce energy bills as much per dollar invested as an investment in a PV array.

I'm worried that you are forsaking the big picture for a narrow point.

All the PV on the roofs of all those conventionally built homes (not even talking about the leaky ones) will do is displace grid demand outside of winter. That's great but that does nothing to solve where the energy is going to come from to heat those homes in winter, by far the largest demand for energy of those homes.

Are we truly going to do nothing about addressing our CO2 emission reduction obligations? Perhaps for a while longer, but human nature being what it is we will finally act once crisis is apparent.

And having gone through most of the conventional pools of natural gas on this continent were now going after the source rock, by fracking shale. Were scraping the barrel and it costs a lot more money to scrape the barrel (as one of my links above points out). What are we going to do once we've run out of sweets spots in the shale plays?

If there is perhaps one thing I learned from you over the years, and from the people you have written about it is to think of the house as a complete system. Yet it seems that having had that epiphany, few stopped to extend that thought and recognize that the house is just a node in a bigger system, the gas and electrical grids amongst others.

A simple payback calculation on PV versus DER doesn't address the bigger issues. It's an apple and oranges comparison that doesn't address winter time energy demand. Sure the simple payback in the short term might be monetarily beneficial to homeowners, but in the medium term I suspect that we all will wish we'd been a good deal more ambitious.

Simple payback analysis decision-making got us into the corner were in now... it's surely not going to get us out of it is it?

We have some huge challenges ahead of us and you have the influence to help steer things in the right direction. Please don't take that responsibility lightly!

Apr 3, 2014 10:22 PM ET

Huddled Masses
by Andrew Henry


I'm guessing that eventually circumstances will require us to rediscover the benefits of "huddling together" for warmth.

Yup, it's looking that way.

I know too many folks who should know better but are surprisingly oblivious or unwilling to examine energy related issues. And I've come to realize that it means we'll end up remarkably unprepared.

P.S. I think I stumbled on your blog via Neven's ASI blog/forum? If it was your blog, I enjoyed reading about your place.

Apr 4, 2014 4:55 AM ET

Response to Andrew Henry (Comment #65)
by Martin Holladay

You wrote, "All the PV on the roofs of all those conventionally built homes (not even talking about the leaky ones) will do is displace grid demand outside of winter. That's great but that does nothing to solve where the energy is going to come from to heat those homes in winter, by far the largest demand for energy of those homes."

True enough. These PV arrays won't mow your lawn or shovel snow from your driveway, either. It's easy to make a long list of what the PV arrays won't do. I never claimed that these PV arrays would solve our winter space heating problems. If you want to discuss the best way to generate electricity during the dark months of winter, or the best fuels to use for space heating, we can. It's an interesting topic, and I already addressed it (briefly) in my last answer to your comments. But it's not the topic of this blog.

You asked, "Are we truly going to do nothing about addressing our CO2 emission reduction obligations?" I hope not. As a political realist, however, I would have to admit that it sure looks like the U.S. government has chosen, as you put it, to "do nothing."

I gave a two-hour presentation on this issue at the Southface conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 2013, so it's a topic I'm interested in, and one I've thought a lot about. Like many other analysts, I have concluded that the most effective policy step that the government could take to reduce carbon emissions is to enact significant carbon taxes. So far, our government hasn't done this.

The tax revenue generated by carbon taxes could be used for two purposes: (a) to provide a rebate to low-income citizens, softening the blow of the increased cost of energy, and (b) to subsidize carbon-neutral energy generation or measures that reduce energy consumption.

Clearly, I'm all in favor of measures designed to reduce residential energy consumption. I've been providing advice to homeowners and builders on these topics for years. That doesn't mean, however, that it's sensible to push deep energy retrofits (at $100,000 a pop) as a solution to our carbon crisis.

Apr 4, 2014 9:54 AM ET

Edited Apr 4, 2014 9:59 AM ET.

Reply to Andrew.
by Lucas Durand - 7A

That sounds like my blog alright and I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.
I visit Neven's blog and forum as my main stop for things related to ASI.
The contributions he gets really make that blog a unique and valuable resource - and he seems like a nice guy to boot.

I thought this was well said:

If there is perhaps one thing I learned from you over the years, and from the people you have written about it is to think of the house as a complete system. Yet it seems that having had that epiphany, few stopped to extend that thought and recognize that the house is just a node in a bigger system, the gas and electrical grids amongst others.

In some ways it seems like more people are catching up, but not fast enough.

Apr 4, 2014 12:44 PM ET

Edited Apr 4, 2014 8:19 PM ET.

I find the power of CO2 to
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

I find the power of CO2 to effect life at such a low percentage of the air amazing.

00.038% is CO2
99.962% is not CO2

And the debate is about 100 part per million increase. If that amount of change was compared to an increase or decrease of the amount type typed or not typed at this blog, it would be like just one of us deciding to add a period or not to one of the hundreds of sentences of this blog.

That is to me at least mind boggling... blogging. + or - a


just a


Apr 4, 2014 12:54 PM ET

Edited Apr 4, 2014 1:02 PM ET.

Help me with the percentage
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Help me with the percentage change of CO2 makeup of the atmosphere.

.038% CO2 now

before the last two centuries

.0379% being that 100/1,000,000 is .0001%

yes no?

The percentage of the atmosphere is so tiny that any effect is hard to comprehend just knowing the percentage.

Much different is the percentage of change of CO2 compared to itself.

300 going to 400 PPM is a 133% increase. That is a number that is alarming on it's face.

The numbers will never sell to all people. Weather, crop failures... that gets one's attention.


Apr 4, 2014 2:03 PM ET

Evidence of efficiency driving electricity growth into the dirt
by Dana Dorsett

It's no just me an a few green-dreamers who think efficiency programs are a primary driver behind flat to negative demand for grid power, disrupting their business model. The utilities themselves are PAINFULLY aware of it, and taking some desperate measures:

This is the same sort of self-preservation tactic utilities are taking against net metering of PV. But it's a tactic that won't have legs in the long term, even if it puts off shareholder pain for the time being. The economic winds are blowing against them, even if they can still garner support from the political & legislative bodies in some locations for now.

Utilities that can adjust their business models sufficiently to get behind demand response, efficiency, and distributed generation NOW will be the ones with the reliable and affordable power in 20 years.

The 3 cents/kwh quoted number for efficiency is oft bandied about and though true today, won't always be. But in states such as MA where utility profits have been decoupled from margin on kwh sale, where new generation is expressly disallowed unless it can be demonstrably cheaper than gaining that capacity with efficiency unless it's a renewable source, it's pretty tough to get permits to build ANY new fossil fired generation. The per-kwh lifecycle cost of efficiency is still cheaper than any new power source, and if rigorously mandated at the federal & state level it would do-in the renewables industry as well as the fossil burns & nukes (which is precisely why it won't happen.)

Even the comparatively modest efforts in Indiana were proving too onerous to the utility stakeholders, despite the demonstrable benefit to the rate payers, a benefit so clear that the governor wouldn't sign the repeal, though allowing it to take effect, and is promising to introduce an alternative by 2015:

In another 10 years that sort of balk by the utilities could lead to grid-defections by those with the means to buy an acre of rooftop PV and enough battery & cogenerator to back it all up, inviting the "utility death spiral" as more and more of the grid maintenance costs fall on a dwindling pool of ratepayers.

Apr 4, 2014 2:44 PM ET

Man that's alot of comments,
by Terry Lee

Man that's alot of comments, can someone please sum it all up into a few paragraphs and tell me bottom line how to make some money at it and get my clients to agree? That be helpful! :)

Apr 4, 2014 7:54 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

"tell me bottom line how to make some money at it and get my clients to agree?"

Do you look menacing? If so just threaten them.

Apr 4, 2014 8:35 PM ET

Passive survivability PV inverters
by Derek Roff

Alex Wilson, and a few others, have mentioned that grid-tied solar means no power when the grid is down, hence diminished passive survivability. When we installed our grid-tied solar one year ago, our installer said if we really wanted it, we could get an inverter that would provide one 120VAC duplex outlet (15A?) that would remain functional when the grid was down. But they didn't recommend that inverter, for other reasons.

What is standing in the way of being able to use all or most of a grid-tied PV system's output in a residence, when the grid is down? Is the cost of that kind of inverter excessively high, are we missing some essential piece of the technology, or has the market just decided not to provide the product, up to now?

If a home could use two or more kilowatts of its own PV during part or most of the day, while the grid was down, that would add a significant input to the passive survivability equation.

Apr 5, 2014 4:17 AM ET

Edited Apr 5, 2014 5:53 AM ET.

Response to Derek Roff
by Martin Holladay

The short answer is that it is significantly more expensive to install a PV system that provides electricity when the grid is down than to install a system that doesn't.

The easiest way to do what you want is to install a large battery that costs between $5,000 and $10,000. The cells of this battery have to be regularly checked, because their fluid level drops and the cells have to be watered with distilled water occasionally. Homeowners don't like the chore. Batteries with dry cells have a very short life span.

The kind of inverter that you are describing performs a kind of magic -- it produces a limited amount of AC power without the stabilizing contribution of a battery system. The reason that the output of this kind of inverter is always a small fraction of the DC output of the PV array is that there is no predicting when a cloud will cover the sun. If you have a 2-kW PV system, and you were trying to run your 1,500-watt air conditioner on a sunny afternoon with no battery and no grid, what would happen when a cloud moved in? I guess there could be some kind of sensor that quickly shut everything down, like a circuit breaker. But the fact is, the DC output of a PV array is always fluctuating because of clouds. It's hard to use the power without the stability of a battery, which acts like a flywheel.

Apr 5, 2014 8:41 AM ET

DER vs solar is a wash
by Chris Gleba

This is an excellent debate and I thank Martin for bringing it up. It motivated me to re-crunch the numbers.

Our DER increased the thermal envelope by 87% (addition,basement,attic) while reducing our utilities by 54%. It roughly saves as much energy as a 7kw solar array produces in New England:

With that, without utility subsidy and assuming stable energy rates into the future neither our DER nor a 7kw solar array would be economically viable.

Solar is viable with net metering but net metering is subsidy -- it is a free rental of a 100% efficient infinite battery. It costs the utility more then wholesale power. If one removes the subsidy, there is no solar configuration I could find on the market that could produce and store power off-the-grid for cheaper then our utility. In other words unsubsidized it would never pay for itself.

Even though our rockwool+Tyvek DER method was considerably cheaper then the polyiso method, without our utility's subsidy our DER would take 50 years to pay itself back -- better then other DERs but still longer then its likely service-life. In other words like unsubsidized solar, if our DER were unsubsidized it would never pay for itself.

But accounting for our utility's DER subsidy, the marginal cost of going from building code to DER (we needed a new roof, new siding, basement work, and an addition either way) will pay for itself in 15 years -- very similar to pay-back period of solar with the net-metering subsidy.

It seems to me that this may be more of a discussion about what subsidies are available and the key is that solar subsidies are common. If subsidies for both were available then on the consumer side it could be a choice between DER's considerable fringe benefits or solar bling.

On the utility side I could see subsidizing a DER as being more advantageous -- it is a one-time subsidy where as solar is a recurring subsidy and DERs predictably reduce peak load where as solar is unpredictable.

I feel very lucky that our utility sponsored our DER and we had such an incredible design/build firm. I could not have done it without them.

Apr 5, 2014 12:26 PM ET

It's not that simple (response to Chris Gleba #76)
by D Dorsett

"Solar is viable with net metering but net metering is subsidy -- it is a free rental of a 100% efficient infinite battery. It costs the utility more then wholesale power."

I'll try to disabuse you of some of these long held truisms that are simply no longer true.

At $3:50/watt-pk the lifecycle cost of grid tied PV is below the residential retail rates for most of New England, using reasonable discount rates in a net present value calculation. I've seen recent quotes in that range. (With federal tax credits and other subsidies- notably the SREC production credit market, the lifecycle cost of even $4.50/watt PV comes in at a lifecycle per-kwh cost of about half the residential retail rate in MA.) It's widely presumed that the installed cost for rooftop grid-tied will be under $2/watt well before 2020- it already is in some locations, and would be financially viable without any tax or production credit subsidy.

To date net metering is a subsidy to the UTILITY, not the residential PV owner, according to those who have studied it in depth. The value of the distributed solar to the utility is more than the offset of flat-rate kwh. The value comes in many forms, not the least of which is summertime peak power "purchased" at the residential rate rather than at peak spot market, which can be several times the residential retail rate. Also, PV output occurs primarily during demand hours, and by sourcing power locally on a grid branch, relieves grid congestion issues, and delays the requirement for investing more capital in to grid assets such as higher capacity conductors & substations, etc. Where regulators guarantee a profit on those capital upgrades it's not necessarily in the utility shareholder's interest to put off or eliminate those investments, but it is SURELY in the ratepayer's interest to avoid or defer those capitalization costs.

The value of the distributed PV varies with both the local grid/utility economics & assets which will also vary over time. The utility in Austin Texas did a fairly rigorous valuation of the distributed PV to their grid and is now compensating PV owners at a "value of solar tariff" (VOST) that is, for now, higher than the residential retail rate. The state of Minnesota used that as the model for their developing their own VOST calculation methodology, which was approved by the state regulatory bodies in just the past few weeks. While net-metering is still allowed in MN, any changes to net metering MUST be made using the VOST methods. Strangely, the utilities aren't falling all over themselves to take back all of that "subsidy" they have been "giving" to distributed PV owners. :-) That's not to say that they won't ever opt to pay under a calculated VOST but under the current MN grid conditions the utilities would be paying more to the PV owners than they do under rough-justice net metering.

Of course utilities lobbying to protect their long held business models continue to protest that net metering is a subsidy, and PV operators are freeloaders on the grid, and sometimes even winning concessions in the form of monthly fees for staying hooked up to the grid, but in truth those fees are a gouge- an attempt to strangle the PV-genie before it upsets their until-now comfortable tea-cart, since the PV is cutting into the capacity factor of their own peak generation and soon threatens to cut into baseload generator capacity factors in AZ and CA. The handwriting on the wall is in Germany, where utilities that recently bet on large centralized power generation are teetering into bankruptcy, and in some instances dismantling and selling (at a lost) even combined cycle gas plants at a discount to other countries where they might actually be used.

Utilities have long been subsidized in many ways, but that's not to say it's a good idea for distributed PV owners to be subsidizing them for their shareholder's benefit. Utilities will have to adjust their business models to the new low cost PV reality or they're toast.

Apr 5, 2014 6:14 PM ET

Response to Dana (# 71).
by Lucas Durand - 7A

I am not yet in a position to comment on the paper you cited earlier as I have only so far had time to read the abstract.
I agree with many of the observations you are making, but for now I remain unconvinced that reduced electricity demand is primarily the result of (in a general sense) a more energy efficient economy.
In some ways energy efficiency is probably making some difference, but in a globalized world, a more realistic accounting must factor in an understanding of global trade dynamics.

For a more technical description of this perspective, please see the following paper on the "Material Footprint of Nations" (not long):

In a nutshell, it describes an attempt at a new model for understanding some of these dynamics and that evaluating resource [energy] consumption for individual nations without consideration to their trade relationships with other nations provides an incomplete picture.
Essentially, it is easy for a nation's economy to appear to be more energy efficient when other nations are doing the "heavy lifting" (ie, the more energy intensive activities of resource extraction and manufacturing) while the "more efficient" nation sticks to consuming the finished products.
When energy (and other resources) embodied into products imported for consumption are reflected in the importing nation's energy (and other resource) balance sheets, the picture appears substantially different than if such factors are excluded from analysis.

As far as dreams go (and what thoughts of the future aren't?), your dream is not a bad one.
However, any dream can be come a liability if dedication to it stymies critical evaluation.
In this vein, I would suggest that while continued effort at advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy programs is essential, so is the realization that they are not magic bullets since they fail to address the real underlying causes of a global predicament like climate change - ie, the human factors ("It's not us, it's just dirty and inefficient technology!" - not.).

Excerpt from the above PNAS study:

Humanity is using natural resources at a level never seen before. The total amount of 70 billion t of raw material extraction is unprecedented, and per-capita levels of resource consumption are at their highest level in history (10.5t/cap in 2008).

Apr 5, 2014 7:17 PM ET

Thanks for explaining, Martin
by Derek Roff

Thank you, Martin, for the answer to my question, which you provided in comment 75. Perhaps for those who are most concerned about passive survivability, there would be value in coming up with a way to use DC power from their PV panels, to power resistance heaters and other devices that are tolerant of voltage and current variations, during prolonged isolation from grid power. I'm guessing that there probably aren't too many people who would consider this.

Apr 5, 2014 7:20 PM ET

Thanks, Dana, for comment 77.
by Derek Roff

Thank you, Dana, for all your contributions to this thread (and others). The information that you provided in comment 77 is useful to me, both for my increased understanding, and for discussions going on in our local solar energy advocacy organization. I appreciate your taking the time to explain so thoroughly. Thanks to everyone else, as well.

Apr 5, 2014 10:31 PM ET

Edited Apr 5, 2014 11:40 PM ET.

Response to D Dorsett #77
by Chris Gleba

Thanks Dana -- the Minnesota VOS methodology looks much more clear then most papers I have read on solar economics:

Thanks for that tip . . .I'm going to let it sink in for a bit. . .

Apr 7, 2014 10:11 AM ET

by Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

First, a response to comment 72 asking for a quick summary that can be used as a sales pitch: "Lie to your clients." If you promise them that a DER will be financially advantageous, then some of them will believe you and go for it. They may never check the numbers, and so live in blissful ignorance ever after. Or they may get lucky and have low energy bills during the economic apocalypse of $300/barrel oil. Luck being relative, of course.

Second: all this has inspired me to run some quick and dirty Excel calculations on measures done at my house. I've tallied up the heating oil purchased each heating season and divided that by the number of heating degree days in each season. When I first moved in, the house went through roughly 0.21 gallons of oil per HDD. This did not change one whit following replacement of numerous old single-pane windows with low-e, argon-filled double panes. However, replacement of the windows did liberate me (at no energy cost) from the minor labors of seasonal hanging of outdoor storm panes plus seasonal installation of window plastic on the interior. Plus they have less lead paint chipping off of them for my toddlers to eat, and are infinitely easier to clean (not that we ever clean them). Worth it? At this point it doesn't matter because it's a sunk cost, but for others considering the same thing, information to consider.

After a few years living in the house we added a mudroom. It's conditioned, but kept at a low temperature and so functions as a semi-air lock between the outdoors and the true living space. This appears to have reduced oil/HDD by about 8.7% (down to 0.19 gallons/HDD). Subsequently we did a heating system overhaul. Half of the house was heated with steam. We eliminated the steam boiler and tied the radiators into the existing (approx. 15 yr. old) hot water boiler that already heated the other half of the house. The circulator was swapped for a Grunfoss variable speed pump, and an outdoor reset was added to the system. All this appears to have reduced our oil/HDD consumption by an additional 13.4% (down to 0.162 gallons/HDD).

Subsequently, we insulated the basement, foaming over the rubble foundation/basement walls top to bottom. The basement is now the warmest, dryest room in the house (in winter)! Strangely, it appears not to have any effect on the heating efficiency of the house as a whole. I do plan to take advantage of all that waste heat by swapping our domestic hot water supply to a HPWH--currently our hot water is in a tank heated as a zone off of the boiler. I've gotten the advice to cut some holes in the basement ceiling and put in registers to the 1st floor, to allow the warm air to easily get up into the living space. I'm surprised it needs that, seeing as the floor can't possibly be air tight, but anyhow, seems like a harmless effort if nothing else. (except maybe annoying by allowing noise of the boiler to enter the living space. I plan to try to rig a sound baffle around the register if the noise is sufficiently annoying.)

Additional weatherization in the plans: the second half of the house sits over crawlspace with sagging fiberglass batts (installed upside down). We'll be removing the batts and spray foaming around the perimeter, plus laying down vapor barrier on the dirt floor of the crawlspace. Also, though there is a fair bit of fluffy stuff in the attic, it was never air sealed so we will get up there and hit the leaky spots.

After that, we'll take stock.

Separately, I crunched the numbers from our home performance audit from a few years ago. According to that, we should avoid 1.79 lbs of CO2 emissions per year for each dollar invested in above-grade basement insulation (up to R-21). Various air-sealing around the house (doors, attic vents) is predicted to reduce CO2 by 0.87 lbs./year/dollar invested. If someone is thinking about doing a DER, what kind of numbers are predicted for that, for each element of the DER? If you start getting down to 0.05 lbs CO2 avoided per year per dollar, you have to start wondering. Don't you? (See comment 4.)

Apr 7, 2014 12:24 PM ET

Response to multiples
by Dana Dorsett

#81 Chris Gleba: There is pretty wide consensus amongst analysts that distributed PV doesn't start to add cost to the grid operator until it has become about 15% of all annual power going onto the system. Parts of Hawaii they have blown by that number and still climbing- in some already saturated neighborhoods the mid-day PV is exceeding 100% of the local load and backfeeding onto local grid assets not well suited for and not designed for 2-way power traffic. Ambri will be field- testing their scalable liquid metal grid storage in Hawaii first at a wind farm, whose output is less well timed to load averages or the aggregate PV output, making it potentially problematic, but it's scalable down to the single house level if need be.( see: ) In those heavy PV neighborhoods they are imposing a somewhat-onerous fee for any NEW PV going onto that very localized grid, while they are working out the details on how to fairly apportion the necessary grid upgrading costs. But as the cost of scalable/controllable storage crashes it will likely become the cheapest solution. California is anticipating hitting those renewable saturation levels in many areas before 2020, and has mandated grid storage as a means of managing a higher level of intermittent renewables, with the costs falling mostly to the rate-payers at large.

There is discussion of adjusting regulations to allow distributed localized storage for distributed PV operators and paying for power at spot-market, but that has been resisted by utilities who are reluctant to allow PV operators to charge their storage at off-peak rates only to sell the power back a peak rates. That resistance is a bit mis-placed IMHO, since allowing that to happen would both raise the off-peak baseload price (and capacity factor), while reducing the price of peak power. The stakeholder that really loses in that scenario would be the owner/operators of low-efficiency low capacity-factor peak generation assets, but in the dawning age of cheaper grid storage they're already doomed, no matter which side of the meter the grid storage lives on.

#78 Lucas Durand: I totally get that the globalized economy can ship carbon footprint and other issues offshore and give the appearance of a greener economy, and that there is no simple accounting for what constitutes an "energy-efficient economy.". But manufacturing has picked up in the US along with the economy in recent years without driving up electricity demand broadly, even though the analysis in that previously linked to white paper indicates that demand in the industrial sector is increasing with the uptick in the economy. In the ERCOT (mostly Texas) region overall electricity demand is continuing to rise, while the capacity factors of fossil fired baseload generation has continued to fall, in large part due to the explosive growth of wind power (which will soon be overtaken by even cheaper PV output) in Texas.

No, there is no technology panacea in the wings, and yes, the needle on efficiency needs to move a LONG way to "solve the problem". But the argument that distributed renewable power is unaffordable is being blown away by facts on the ground, and will be even more so as fossil extraction continues to become more expensive. The rationale for fossil extraction is poised to go away, or at least become dramatically reduced. I'm not sure who said it first, but the stone age didn't end because the world ran out of stones, and that will be the case with fossil fuels.

And in that regard...

#82 Jonathan Teller-Elsberg: "Or they may get lucky and have low energy bills during the economic apocalypse of $300/barrel oil." I'm reluctant to ever say "never", but $300/bbl oil seems highly unlikely, since at that price nobody would buy it- EVERYTHING becomes cheaper.

While this isn't universally true just yet reducing your own carbon footprint it's probably cheaper to just stop burning #2 heating oil for space heating and use heat pumps. At the ISO-New England heating-season grid mix a heat pump with an average COP of 2.5 has less than half the carbon footprint of condensing gas furnaces, will be even better after already-scheduled coal plants closings are history. An 85% oil burner puts out more than 50% more carbon than a 95% condensing gas burner to deliver the same heat to the house- heat pumps make an even bigger impact when displacing oil fired heat. In terms of carbon bang/buck there are situations where spending the money on switching over to heat pumps from oil are much better than spending it on a DER for marginal oil-use reductions. That will of course vary with your local grid. But of course, until the grid is substantially greener the DER will still be necessary to hit the 80% below 1990 carbon output targets: See:

Even at $100/bbl crude oil & 20 cent/kwh power it's still quite a bit cheaper to heat your place with heat pumps, and the cost savings of the displaced oil use can fund the DER.

Apr 7, 2014 1:56 PM ET

Edited Apr 7, 2014 7:53 PM ET.

Re: Dana #83 (heat pump v. insulation)
by Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

Yes, I've got that in mind too. My house has a cruddy layout for heat pumps--a long, skinny farmhouse with lots of small rooms. The part of the house that we spend the most time in already has a small wood stove, so that space and the room above it have much-reduced demand on the oil boiler. (It and the bedroom above it each have their own thermostats. Other parts of the house have independent thermostats.) So I dunno... I'll have to do some more analysis to figure out what'll work best 'n such.

UPDATE: to be clear, nothing I'm doing on the weatherization side approaches DER. Just good old weatherization. No existing plans to swaddle the walls in polyiso or whatever.

UPDATE: I'm in climate zone 6.

Apr 7, 2014 5:22 PM ET

Ducted heat pumps work too.
by Dana Dorsett

It really depends on how cold your climate is but there are some pretty good mid-tonnage modulating ducted heat pumps that can work for the doored-off antique homes that can work OK in much of US climate zone 5, such as the Trane XP25, or Carrier Greenspeed.

I know some peops who installed a 4 ton 3-zone Trane in their 18th century added-onto in the 19th and early 20th century house in a location with an outside design temp of -2F. Since they ran most of the ducts and the air handler in the attic the as-installed as-used efficiency isn't nearly as good as a ductless approach, but still cheaper to heat with than their late 1990s oil boiler. (And with 8-10kwh of ground mounted PV in their backyard they had an electricity-surplus issue to deal with, since under the net-metering deal with the utility they were not being compensated for the annual overage they were sourcing. The heat pump fixed THAT problem BIG TIME ! :-) )

Apr 7, 2014 7:13 PM ET

DER price tag of $100,000 - really?
by Marcus de la fleur

Martin floated the $100,000 cost for a DER, which is indeed expensive. But I have the suspicion that this number doesn’t tell the whole story, and it looks like I am not the only one having questions.

William Goodwin (#26) points out that:

“…houses with unattractive, failing, lead paint covered or asbestos exterior finishes might be candidates for a deep energy retrofit in conjunction with an exterior remodel.”

Thinking along the same line, Bob Irving (#28) asks:

“…the real question needs to be: what is the additional cost to add insulation to the envelope?”

That question got never answered – although Chris Gleba (#76) got somewhat close:

“…the marginal cost of going from building code to DER (we needed a new roof, new siding, basement work, and an addition either way) will pay for itself in 15 years…”

I would agree that spending $100,000 on a DER on a move in ready home with no or little deferred maintenance doesn’t make sense, but weatherization would.

But there are also buildings like ours: A 110 year energy hog – a masonry two flat in Chicago with decades and decades of deferred maintenance ( Unfortunately, our building is not an exception. Do I really want to start weatherizing buildings like this? I think weatherization in these cases would be money down the drain and merely compound the problems of deferred maintenance.

It typically requires a gut-rehab to bring these building up to basic code and make them once more healthy and safe to live in. At this point, I would argue that a DER would be worthwhile considering.

Let’s stick with the suggested $100,000 price tag. With the above scenario, I would need to subtract all the work that I would need to do anyways to put the building back into basic shape. At this point I am potentially going from $100,000 down to incremental extra cost for the DER. And – may be – it turns out that a “shallow energy retrofit (SER)” would do the job, particularly if cheap solar would allow me to go from R40 down to R30…

I like this provocative post by Martin and thoroughly enjoyed the discussion in the comment section. What a treasure trove.

Apr 7, 2014 8:56 PM ET

Response to Dana (#83)
by Lucas Durand - 7A

As I have said a couple of times now, I agree with your observations about the cost competitiveness of distributed renewables - I don't dispute that.
And I don't dispute that this has been creating disruption in energy markets.
However, when you say the "rationale for fossil extraction is poised to go away" I am not-so-sure - but I agree it sounds pretty good in theory.
History will show us just how "rational" the marketplace will be when push really comes to shove (or maybe more accurately what rationale determines the future of fossil fuel production) - but until then, whether this or that WILL happen is really just a matter of faith.
And of course the stone age didn't end for lack of stones, but at the risk of stating the obvious, this ain't the stone age.

These days we have a great heap of uncertainty, and under such circumstances prudence suggests a precautionary approach to the future.
Rather than just leaving our collective fate to faith in market forces, we could also attempt to "look in the mirror" and address those real fundamental drivers of climate change.
For just one example, we could ask ourselves if the cultural story (it is only just a story after all) that tells us that we should create demand for stuff (a behaviour which we know is responsible for putting vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, even if a lot of it happens on the other side of the globe) is really a story we want to listen to and live by anymore.

But I know, I know, this is not a very likely...
And so we risk being the monkey, tightly gripping the banana inside the gourd, even as the hunter brings down his club (or maybe Homer Simpson tightly gripping a soda can inside a vending machine).

In any case, I sense an impasse in this debate - we can just agree to disagree on ideological grounds.

Apr 8, 2014 5:12 AM ET

Response to Marcus de la fleur
by Martin Holladay

You aren't the first person to question whether a deep energy retrofit really costs $100,000. Many observers point out that you should be able to back out the cost of the new siding and roofing, since these are non-energy-related amenities.

Even researchers who have tried to back out these non-energy-related costs have still ended up with costs in the $80,000 to $150,000 range. The fact is, critics like to imagine the perfect building for a deep energy retrofit, and then generalize from the perfect building. Researchers and remodelers working in the real world, however, have to work with buildings as they actually are, not hypothetical buildings.

For more data on the cost of deep-energy retrofits, see The High Cost of Deep-Energy Retrofits.

There are several problems with your suggestion that builders can achieve lower deep energy retrofit costs by focusing on "110-year-old energy hogs ... with decades and decades of deferred maintenance." The basic problem with this cost-reduction strategy is that these buildings have more rather than fewer problems to address. Fixing all of the issues in this type of building, and making sure that life safety issues, electrical code issues, plumbing code issues, and basement moisture entry issues are addressed is extremely expensive. Sure, you can back out all of these costs from your analysis -- but (a) you can't build an affordable carbon-reduction program on this strategy, and (b) you might as well just build a new house if you need to do this type of gut-rehab work.

In his presentation, Paul Endrenkamp pointed out that even his very high costs included a flaw: he wasn't charging enough for his work. "The gross profit on my first deep energy retrofit was -$2,000. That's right -- it was less than zero." Everyone, including well-meaning builders, really wants these types of jobs to be affordable. They're not.

Apr 8, 2014 8:08 PM ET

Sun vs. Water
by Pam Kueber

Bravo, Martin, on another awesome story. And so interesting to read all the comments, too. The best reading on the web this week!

Seems to me that those who have sun don't have water, and those who have water don't have sun. Maybe would could trade and live happily ever after.

Apr 9, 2014 4:58 AM ET

Response to Pam Kueber
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for the feedback.

By the way, Mississippi and Alabama have high rates of rainfall and high rates of insolation. If you want both water and sun, you should move to Mississippi or Alabama.

Apr 9, 2014 3:46 PM ET

Response to Lucas Durand (#87) I'm not sure we disagree
by Dana Dorsett

We may be just talking about different aspects more than simply oppositional. I too believe that there are natural limits to economic growth, but I'm less convinced that carbon emissions will be in lock step with the substantial amount of worldwide economic growth that IS going to happen over the next century, since PV and wind are rapidly becoming cheaper than the high-carb alternative.

But it's true that most people don't really get just HOW cheap PV is going to become (or is already, compared to high-carb alternatives in the third world) and how that is going to change the picture of all-things-energy (particularly grid-energy in the Americas) in the coming 2 decades.

Just last week David Crane, the CEO of NRG Inc (the largest independent power generation company with lots of fossil & nuke assets) made the statement:

"The fact that distributed solar is going to take over the built environment in the United States, it's a completely foregone conclusion that that's going to happen."

In the same Q & A session he also said:

"The purpose of having old coal plants, to be frank, is keeping the lights on for the next three, five, 10 years,"

Ten years isn't a very long time in utility company investment-cycle terms.

His oft-quoted line of the day was:

"I'm not anti-utilities, I'm not anti-nuclear, I'm not anti-coal, I'm just anti-bullshit."

(More here: )

This was a guy with vested interest in power generation reading the handwriting on the wall out loud- fossil power in the US is at it's zenith right now, even if the rate of the decline in fossil power is uncertain, the decline itself is. Only the folks drinkin' the frack water will say otherwise with any vehemence.

Fixing developed world grid power won't solve the other material resource issues, and there are many less expected ways in which things might evolve, but neither enhanced efficiency nor distributed generation is a particularly sticky monkey trap, with a lot of depth left to tap to provide a continuation of economic growth. (By some analysts estimation something better than 80% of grid power in the industrial sector in the US is wasted, which is a pretty deep well to tap.) A goodly amount of both will be necessary, but both are in fact cheaper than "dig it up and burn it" strategies, when implemented using least-cost methods. It's only a matter of how much of each and when/how. In the US minimum efficiency standards work, and work economically, despite the squawking of the political right. But bece it's politically unpopular it continues to be underutilized.

At this point it's cheaper to build distributed scalable renewables than a grid & centralized power system necessary to provide power to remote area in the developing world, even in places as densely populated as India, and it's cheaper power than the small scale low-efficiency diesel that it's is replacing and expanding on. (In some of those same places there isn't sufficient cooling water available to support massive grid development with thermal plants of any kind.)

Whether it happens at a fast enough pace to make the critical difference isn't clear- but the cost of small and mid-scale renewable power is no longer the obstacle it was 20 years ago. SunEdison is now able to sell PV powered irrigation pumping systems in third world rural areas on a cost-savings basis, and PV powered lamps can be sold profitably with a signficant cost savings to the end user over kerosene & oil lamps- there is no reason to believe that China's high-carb path of the past 30 years of insane growth rates will be repeated in quite the same way. SunEdison founder Jigar Shah (a US-American from Chicago with a Hindustani name) was saying things along the line that "Third world government should just stop lying to the people about when they are going to bring the grid to their village, since that just stops them from buying their own solutions that take less money anyway. Aid money to developing countries for electrical power development is being largely wasted, since the way it gets spent is too influenced by the centralized grid mindset of those the donor countries." (paraphrased only). I'm somewhat hopeful that the mindset will change as grid power sources in the already-developed world becomes ever more distributed.

For instance, Zimbabwe has a heluva lot of coal in the ground and but a handful of coal-fired central power plants. But even if they get their political problems in order there's no reason to believe it'll ever heavily tapped for coal energy, though coal-seam methane (for both chemical & energy purposes) may happen, provided the coal seams get more developed before local PV dominates in Africa the way it will elsewhere. There is at least one 300MW coal- methane power station planned but not yet under development in Lupane ZW, but it's not clear that it'll get built before it's simply not needed. Cost estimates for just building that plant are getting onto $2USD/watt, which is already about the cost of grid-tied PV that needs less distribution infrastructure and carries no fuel costs. ( The cheap & scalable grid battery problem is already well on the way to being solved- at the rate things really get done in Africa the whole scalable-renewable solution will be cheaper, and people will solve it themselves rather than waiting another decade or three for the central plant and wider grid to get built.

One paradigm of at least some relevance is that many parts of the developing world that never had a wired telephone system now have well developed cellular services, and will NEVER have wired telephony. To be sure, electrical power is a bit different, it won't be an exact repeat- but you can be pretty sure that it's going to rhyme. The huge amount of infrastructure required for centralized power isn't a prerequisite for providing useful energy any more. The economies of scale that went along with large centralized coal-fired power generation in 1914 just aren't there for PV and mid-sized wind in 2014.

Apr 10, 2014 10:07 PM ET

Edited Apr 10, 2014 10:18 PM ET.

Response to Dana Dorsett
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Certainly these issues are complicated enough that it is easy to talk at cross-purposes.
I agree that fossil fuel production and carbon emissions aren't necessarily destined to follow any particular growth trajectory (in fact, I think that these must decline "naturally" at some point with or without competition from cheap renewable energy).
And if we can agree that there are natural limits to economic growth then you're probably right that we can't be too far apart ideologically.

I will risk complicating this discussion further then by saying that I am skeptical that renewables will actually outcompete fossil fuels because of issues related to economic growth (just to be clear, I don't mean outcompete in the sense of cost/unit energy supplied to market as that appears to already be happening, but rather outcompete in the sense that they actually force fossil fuels out of the marketplace over the long term despite the relatively high cost of the latter).

It seems clear that the projections you are describing are plausible and that we are seeing now the very first glimmers of such a possible future reality - but, like any forecast, those projections rely on some assumptions, the largest of which may be the assumption of continued economic growth and relative prosperity for the global economy (ie, continued build-out of renewable infrastructures requires stable financing typical of growing economies, trade and logistics for sourcing materials/components, etc).
If we assume that natural limits to economic growth are still far enough away that, say, another 50 years of economic growth is not out of the question, then I think it is possible that the types of projections you describe may have some chance to come to pass.
If, however, such limits are closer at hand (and it does seem entirely possible that they could be) then significant economic disruption may lead to any number of other alternative scenarios - including some in which human beings choose the "all of the above" option for energy (economic "hard times" could be a rationale for forcing the production of fossil fuels even where they are not cost competitive with renewables simply, say, to employ people or for strategic advantage).

I am also skeptical that we (human beings) are as smart as we seem to be convinced we are (certainly as a species we are not very wise, in general, but I'm not sure we're quite as clever as we think either) and that the economic theories that have become the dominant cultural force on this planet are maybe not so correct as we think they are.
By way of analogy:
The other night I happened to be watching Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about how people's understanding of gravity has changed over the years, and how observations of the planet Mercury's orbit created some uncertainty about the Newtonian model which had worked so well up to then.
Apparently, until Einstein came along with the theory of general relativity, Newtonian physicists were content to simply assume the existence of an unobserved (imaginary) planet "Vulcan" in order to explain the discrepancies between their observations of Mercury's orbit and what the Newtonian model predicted.

I think that there is a very good chance that this exactly where we are now with respect to our understanding of how our economics interact with the "real world" (ie, the physical universe).
For a long, long time economic theory could be applied in the "real world" without those theories being truly tested against certain large-scale physical limits (ie, limits to pollution (including CO2), limits to resources, etc.) in the same way that it took a couple of hundred years before Newton's laws were tested by a planet that refused to adhere to its predictions.
Economist Herman Daly coined the terms "empty world" and "full world" as a general means of differentiating between two distinct contexts in which economic theory is applied - the economics that we know now evolved and have their track record in an "empty world" (empty of people but "boundless" resources) and now we will see a real time test of those economics in a "full world" (full of people and with diminished resources).
Which theories will survive the test, which will have to be rethought?
Should be interesting...

But I refrain from making my own predictions, I just like to point out that there is a lot more uncertainty in the world these days than many people are generally aware of and so I advocate for a precautionary outlook - ie, until we know with more certainty what's what, it would be wise for us to slow right down.

Apr 14, 2014 4:12 PM ET

Response to Martin Holladay
by Marcus de la fleur

(a) you can't build an affordable carbon-reduction program on this strategy

Martin, is your emphasis here on "affordable" or "carbon-reduction"? I assume it is on affordable, but would like to be sure.

(b) you might as well just build a new house if you need to do this type of gut-rehab work.

I hear and read that all the time.

I think we can agree that it can be extremely expensive to get these old energy hogs fixed up (DER or not). What I want to know is what you suggest to do with them instead – if not fixing. Letting them sit and continue to defer maintenance won't help. As we all know, deferred maintenance get exponentially more expensive over time and the buildings continue to be energy hogs. New construction won't solve the problem in a City like Chicago, unless you tear whole neighborhoods down and start over. Not sure that I would file that under viable or wise.

In short: with all the options that come to my mind, fixing them up and at that point looking at executing a DER sounds like the best and pretty cost effective solution to me.

Apr 15, 2014 6:29 AM ET

Edited Apr 15, 2014 6:31 AM ET.

Response to Marcus de la fleur
by Martin Holladay

You quoted one of my comments -- "You can't build an affordable carbon-reduction program on this strategy" -- and then you asked, "Is your emphasis here on ‘affordable’ or ‘carbon-reduction’? I assume it is on affordable, but would like to be sure."

If you mean to ask whether a deep energy retrofit reduces carbon emissions, then I would of course answer yes. But lots of measures reduce carbon emissions at a very high price; for example, if the federal government funded a car-swap program that provided a new Prius to anyone who agreed to surrender their existing car for crushing, the program would reduce carbon emissions. But it would be a very expensive program.

You wrote, "I think we can agree that it can be extremely expensive to get these old energy hogs fixed up (DER or not). What I want to know is what you suggest to do with them instead – if not fixing?"

That's a dilemma for the owners of these buildings. But it is conceivable that our new post-climate-change future will lead to many neighborhoods being abandoned. Predictions are tough to make. The brutal fact is that not every existing house is worth fixing up.

If owners can afford a gut rehab of a building in terrible shape, then I salute them for doing the work.

Jun 25, 2014 5:22 PM ET

The Lock-In Concept
by Bill Burke

Am I hallucinating, or does the email I received from Green Building Advisor have another story listed slightly above yours titled, "The ‘Lock-In’ Concept and Passivhaus Construction" that says: "It’s better to save up your money for a deep-energy retrofit in a few years than it is to implement less comprehensive measures now."? That article is at
Is your blog post intended as counterpoint or is this just a strange coincidence?

I agree with your post!

Jun 25, 2014 5:46 PM ET

Response to Bill Burke
by Martin Holladay

"The ‘Lock-In’ Concept and Passivhaus Construction" is a guest blog written by Matthew O'Malia. GBA regularly publishes guest blogs, and our bloggers express varying opinions across a broad spectrum.

GBA is delighted by this diversity of opinion, and makes no attempts, Stalinist or otherwise, to enforce conformity.

Jul 3, 2014 1:27 PM ET

Homeowner bewilderment and frustration
by Dan and Marcy Hudzinski

The wife and I have been considering, for a good while now, our future options for energy-efficient living, and doing so in a manner that creates a "rest of our lives" home. We've decided this is the local area in which we wish to grow old and are now considering what it will take to do so. Accessibility is key, as are proximity and energy use. We're not eco-nuts, alarmists, or anything like that, but simply understand that fossil fuels do not grow on trees and that we're not creating enough dinosaurs to keep up with the demand for dino-oil.

The approach to our goal (or at least the thinking) is multi-pronged: use less, generate some of our own, evaluate and act on some lifestyle elements, and make this our last home. We had originally planned to build new about 30 miles from here (but still somewhat local to the small city nearby). Last year we bought a pair of adjoining lots at a good price, with perfect southern exposure and easy (though a bit distant) access to the city. We were looking into building a single-story passive-type home with a large and separate building as a garage and shop space for my business. Ultimately, we've reached the 90% decision that the greater distance from the city could be problematic as our mobility declines with age. Well, that, plus the large price tag we've repeatedly seen for passive (whether certified 'passiv' or not). We've now put the build option on the back burner due to location and cost.

That puts us, then, on a path to remodel the place we're in now. It's a classic 1920s Midwestern / Sears (not sure if it's an actual Sears home) foursquare, in good-but-not-great condition. The location could hardly be better, we're already here, and we think we can meet the needs of my business by doing a small expansion - including adding some space in the basement - and some carefully considered rearranging of the first floor layout. This would include expanding the garage to the village-maximum 1,000sf. Similar to the vacant lots, we have near-perfect Zone 6 (SW Wisconsin) southern exposure on both the house and garage.

We've long considered solar (PV and water) to be a part of the formula. The sun is working 24/7 around the world (literally!) to give us a source for warmth, and through clever science and engineering, electricity. All for the cost of some hardware with few - or no - moving parts. Obviously it's not a 100% solution; sunset makes that the reality. Batteries have been considered by the wife and I but there are some problems with that (cost, space required, putting them in a climate-controlled space, off-gassing, etc.); we haven't given up on that detail but it's also firmly on the back burner.

That still leaves the consumption side. We're currently addressing that by keeping the thermostat low in winter, to the point that I wear thermals each day from around November through March. And working in the basement often has me wearing a jacket - some mornings this past colder-than-normal winter it was 42-45 degrees down there. Our consumption is certainly lower than it could be were the thermostat set at 68-70 instead of the current 62-64 for heat and 74-76 for cooling. The bills are low for a house this size in this zone, but only because we've essentially insulated ourselves for 5-6 months each year. Comfort is being sacrificed in the name of consumption, and we realize that is NOT going to work in retirement.

I do have a point, and we're getting there...

So we're leaning heavily toward making this home work for our goals. The roof is due for replacement in 3-5 years by my guesstimate, the detached garage needs to be rebuilt, the siding - besides being an ugly green - is old with an integrated masonite insulation layer (I think we all know about the masonite problems), and it's just plain drafty. And that basement - brrrr! Seems like a DER would be a good fit at this time, since we'd be attacking the major components anyway.

Originally I was thinking of starting with the garage, making at 41' (length of southern exposure) x 24' and slapping solar up there right away. That would at least get the ball rolling with almost no interruption here in the house, would gain me some storage space for business stuff, would put a couple vehicles inside (potentially reducing winter warm-up time and subsequent fuel use), and would slow down the electric meter. It could also be done much sooner than the house, thus being finished before the solar subsidies (we think of it as a tax refund) go bye-bye.

And then we'd attack the house with gusto.

This is where we're reading so much conflicting information, and what may ultimately lead to "analysis paralysis". To start with, we're not made of money. Our 6-figure income gets whittled down to 5-figures by the time our 30%+ effective tax rate kicks in. We're in the bad spot of not making enough to where money isn't an issue, and making so much that the meager subsidies are the only financial incentives available; we don't qualify for any "assistance" programs (in quotes, because we're funding with that 30%+ effective tax rate those programs that we, ourselves, don't actually qualify for). If money were no object I wouldn't be bothering with this post. But it is, so here we are.

But conflicting information? Oh, yes:

- "DER is the way to go to reduce your consumption. Ignore the fact that $100k is a fair guess of what it will cost. If you're supremely lucky and live in the right location, someone else will be paying for it." We're not lucky. "You'll start saving right away." Maybe. "The products are very durable." They incorporate toxic materials and manufacturing practices, and if they're not installed properly then they may as well not be installed at all. "You can reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 90%!" Sure, if you double that $100k. For which you'll never see the payback, let alone the original $100k. "Air sealing is paramount to making it work." That's wonderful, if you want Sick Building Syndrome because your consultant / architect / contractor doesn't know how to correctly address ventilation matters in this type of building upgrade. And the ventilation equipment will cost at least 2-3x as much as your plain ol' gas furnace does. Have you priced an HRV, let alone found someone who knows how to correctly configure and install one?

- "Forget going crazy on energy-use reduction: renewable energy generation is the way to go." Got enough roof space? "Prices are coming down, making it more affordable." Essentially, you're getting some of your tax money back with the subsidies. And you better hurry up because the subsidies are expiring within the next 30 months. "They quietly and cleanly generate electricity and hot water." Until you consider the manufacturing process, and then you're trading power plant pollution for manufacturing pollution. "They last a good 20-30 years." With diminishing efficiency from Day One. And those panel will last 20-30 years while a correctly-performed DER is good for much longer than that. If you buy panels twice over 40 years, is it still cheaper than a DER? "Sure, you don't generate power all day long. That's what the grid is for." True, though grid-tie costs more upfront, and your power company is likely lobbying hard to buy your solar power at the wholesale rate, not the retail rate. And they'll win that fight as more and more solar comes online and their revenue declines. Because, well, lobbyists and politicians. That increases your payback period. "You can have a battery system instead of using the grid, then." Batteries are very expensive, they contain toxic materials, they require regular maintenance, they have a lifespan of maybe 5-8 years at which point you're replacing them all over again, you have to pay to dispose of the old ones, they can't be expected to work well in an unconditioned garage, and they will off-gas some pretty hazardous fumes.

- "Just do weatherization." Okay, but we're tearing up all this stuff anyway so why not go farther? "Because you won't save that much." But isn't it better to pay once for the upgrades instead of paying every month the cost of NOT doing the upgrades? "It'll take forever to pay it back." Not forever. There's an actual date, and it's anyone's guess when that date will be. "So you don't know." Yes, we don't know. Does this mean that doing less is the right move?

- "Well, you have to do SOMEthing, because fossil fuels, environment, etc., etc." Okay, here's my house, and here's what we'd like to accomplish. Give us an idea of what we should be doing. "You should definitely go with DER." "Oh, no. DER is stupid. Solar is the way to go." "No, those are both stupid. Shallow is the way to go and don't fret the rest." "These three are all wrong, and at the same time they're all right - you need to do a combo of all three!" Great. While you guys are arguing about it we're going to do nothing, which helps nothing. Also costs us nothing and requires no effort.

So the solution is probably somewhere in the middle. Where in the middle?

On top of this, "comfort" has been poo-pooed here in the comments by some of those in-the-know. As I have been working in our chilly basement, I have a pretty good idea of what is NOT comfortable: too cold, too hot, too humid, too dry, drafty, noisy, etc. We've done the thermals thing, the box fan thing, the window air conditioner thing. It gets old, fast, but we can live with it for now. When we're 70? 80? So don't discount the notion of comfort: just because it's no big deal to someone now, that doesn't mean it won't matter in later years.

So why are we bewildered and frustrated? Conflicting advice from experts. We're told to do and not do DER. We're told to do and not do solar (especially hot water / hydronic, lately, for some reason). We're told that comfort is important, and also that it's overrated. We've even seen an article that almost-but-not-quite says 'do nothing' with regards to solar and DER:

Shoot, we've even seen an article ( that says, "Step 1 - Upgrade the mechanical systems"... and later, "Note to item 5: Go back to Step 1 and reduce the size of the mechanicals.." The expert advice is to upgrade this stuff twice in the span of a few years?!? What am I missing here, besides a checkbook with a much larger balance? "After you get past item 5, the house will be efficient enough to downsize the mechanical equipment, which you replaced in step 1. If you’re planning to go at least through step 5, keep that in mind before buying a new boiler or HVAC unit. " We did keep that in mind, and decided that replacing nearly-new HVAC equipment with brand-new smaller HVAC equipment is some really bad advice. Unless, of course, you're an HVAC installer or manufacturer, in which case it's the best advice ever.

Which expert is the correct one, the one with the right answers, the one that isn't going to cost us a ton of money that we don't have because we're paying taxes in part for energy efficiency subsidies for other people and other businesses, the one who doesn't have a favorite solution toward which he or she steers everyone regardless of whether it's the proper approach for a specific building? Who is the general contractor who knows the proper way to seal and insulate a building while eliminating the hazards of trapped moisture and dead air ("Houses need to breathe!" "Oh, no, they don't!" ), and can do this with products that have a smaller production and transportation impact? Who is the HVAC guy who knows how to size, install, program, and repair the costly HRV and ductwork that we've been told to buy because the house is now sealed tight as a drum? Who is the renewable energy guru who can make solar hot water actually work like it's supposed to (for some reason, we've read of many problems here), and also correctly combine it with the heat exchanger to reduce energy consumption further? Who is the person who can guide us through the various programs to help pay for this stuff that we're funding? And who can help us find a lender that understands what it is that we're trying to accomplish, and why it's adding value to the property?

From what we can tell every opinion on the matter is right, and is also wrong at the same time. We're told, as consumers, to 'do our homework'. As we're doing that, we're starting to believe that nobody really knows what to do. "But every case is different." Well, yes, and no. As a consumer ultimately paying for - and living with - the results this can create a "do nothing" attitude, and maybe the easiest and overall eco-friendliest thing to do is to simply turn up the thermostat in winter. Sounds cheaper and less stressful but that doesn't lead to any solutions.

I don't know if this is supposed to be a rant, or a lament. The problem for the consumers is that we're taking the single largest investment - our homes - and considering investing half again - or more - to make it operate more efficiently. A noble idea, and hopefully it has a reasonable payback. The difficulty is that looking at as much expertise / opinion as we can find, we aren't any further along on deciding what to do: deep, shallow, or medium? Generate our own juice or put that money toward the shell? If solar, how much? 3kW, 6kW, 10kW? Insulate, seal, or both? Tight shell vs 'breathing'?Are R-5 windows worth the cost, even if you're already replacing windows anyway? Solar hot water and hydronic heat - worth the cost and added complexity? Get rid of natural gas and go with an electric / heat exchange solution (CO reduction)? Batteries or not?

And how do we find the experts to consult, design, and build, and install all of this stuff correctly, the first time, so we achieve those goals at the lowest reasonable costs and with the lowest overall impact, including manufacturing, transport, etc.? We are finding people who are involved in this stuff (not so much local), but, again, there is so much conflicting advice and data...

I can't imagine we're the only consumers who are lost on what to do, and who don't know what to believe. For us, the more we research the more confusing it all becomes. "What's your budget?" "Don't know: how much will a lender spot us for energy efficiency (that's a 'chicken-and-egg' in itself), how much will it cost to achieve xx% energy-use reduction, how much will utility rates rise over any given period, how long will the subsidies be in effect, will new subsidies be introduced, will building codes change significantly, will we be able to find local consulting / design / construction / systems experts?" That's all on top of the questions and arguments stated earlier. We'll continue to research and hopefully the optimal solution will present itself - a combination of MER and solar, perhaps. And maybe it's best to simply close our eyes, bite the bullet, and not second-guess afterward.

If anyone can offer sound advice on how to approach the thought process to help us clarify a direction in this bewildering process, we're all ears. We've made our lists of wants and needs for every bit of the property, so at least we have clarity on what we want to achieve, and we have a budget in mind (financing-dependent) to start with.

Jul 3, 2014 2:00 PM ET

Response to Dan and Marcy Hudzinski
by Martin Holladay

Dan and Marcy,
I understand your frustration, but I think your situation isn't as complicated as you imply.

You aren't millionaires. You have a budget. Right away, that limits your options.

You want a little more space in your garage, and you want to remodel your house. So you probably need to hire an architect or a designer. Hire one with a demonstrated focus on energy efficiency.

Tell your architect what your budget is. That will limit a lot of options right away.

If the architect is any good, he or she will recommend that you hire a RESNET-certified or BPI-certified rater to conduct an energy audit of your house. The cost of the audit will be worth every penny. You'll learn a lot about your house from the audit, and will be given recommendations for cost-effective energy retrofit measures that you can pursue.

During the next few weeks or months, continue to read more articles on GBA, including the posted comments. The advice on this site is almost always dependable, especially when modified by the comments, and is only rarely contradictory.

If you follow all these steps, you'll be well on your way to success. At that point, you can post any remaining questions on our Q&A page. Good luck.

Jul 4, 2014 10:18 AM ET

Been looking for raters
by Dan and Marcy Hudzinski

Yep, we've been to both of those sites. For some reason, we're in this black hole where the nearest raters are quite a distance away. Not sure why since our metro area is in the 70-100,000 population range. Go figure. The RESNET site, for some reason, lists raters but doesn't provide contact info except for the Gold Star certified folks, while the BPI site keeps pointing me to people 1,000+ miles away when I specify my own region. Maybe some bugs on those sites.

We'll keep looking, though - EnergyStar and FocusOnEnergy (WI's energy program) have their own lists of experts, so something will pop up. I have a feeling that matters will start to become clearer as we get some one-on-one time with those who know these things. But it would be nice to hear some industry consensus on one or two matters, anyway. Guess it's not that simple.

One nice thing about the whole process - even though it can add confusion - is that there ARE different options to pursue. One-size fits-all is usually more like one-size-fits-none. As mentioned previously, it will eventually be a combination of power gen on-site along with some insulation and sealing, taking advantage of natural heat from the sun, and ventilation upgrades. I think that last is going to be unavoidable since we'd like to get to the point of a single fuel (the electron) for all of our needs. Eliminating combustion hardware inside the home increases long-term safety in a few ways.

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