In January 2015, myself and nine other students from Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy embarked on our capstone project. under the direction of Lloyd Kass with the Building Energy Exchange. We were tasked with producing research about the energy efficiency program landscape for multi-family homes in New York City. We combined online research with in-person interviews to glean insights about New York’s incentive programs, best practices from other cities, behavioral components of energy efficiency uptake, and the State’s changing regulatory landscape.

New York City building owners have a wealth of options when it comes to energy efficiency. Multiple programs delivered by utilities, the state, and the federal government create a complex decision-making environment that is exacerbated by the overlapping criteria. It’s difficult for building owners to sift through the options and find the most appropriate program. In actuality, the way the programs are implemented naturally leads to segregation, e.g. buildings pursuing more extensive retrofits are more likely to use the state program whereas those implementing smaller scale projects choose utility programs. Aside from the complexity, it is simply an inefficient use of funds to market competing programs to the same target group.

We looked at several North American cities – San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, Chicago and Toronto. These cities either had similar building stock and climate or were known for innovative program delivery techniques. From looking at these programs, we found several commonalities and, from those, identified two tactics that could be especially relevant to New York: brand unity (using a common name and logo for all programs) and one stop shop (a central office for programs instead of one office per program). Brand unity could make marketing more efficient and facilitate education about energy efficiency. A one stop shop could help building owners navigate available technologies or programs and speed up decision making.

In addition to design of the programs, uptake is influenced by fundamental beliefs that energy efficiency makes sense for financially and/or environmental reasons. From our conversations with stakeholders in the industry, we identified several cognitive and systemic barriers, which we’ve termed the 4Cs:

  1. Consumer belief – Do people value the benefits of energy efficiency?
  2. Confidence – Do people have faith in the methods by which assessments are done? One of the challenges with energy efficiency is that it’s not possible to compare energy use if retrofits weren’t put in place, thus effective models are very important.
  3. Control – Who makes the decisions? In the multifamily market, the decision-making processes are varied; different forms of ownership, e.g. a small 10-unit building will have different priorities than a large property management company. Separate targeted marketing is necessary for each decision-maker type.
  4. Continuity – How long will these incentives last? This is crucial to the success of programs because building owners want to be assured that programs will be able to fund their projects to completion.

In New York State, the continuity of programs is in question given the current REV regulatory proceedings, where the expectation is that utilities will take over greater parts of the energy efficiency programs. Confusion remains about what REV entails exactly and this uncertainty could lead to disruption in incentive programs. At the same time, regulatory changes like REV are a critical part of the evolving energy landscape to combat climate change.

Working on this project with BEEx has been a very professionally fulfilling experience for me, as our work has been helpful in my own job search. It has also been interesting to conduct this research in the midst of REV and the State’s efforts to re-energize the energy and utility industries. It’s going to be an exciting few years in New York and I look forward to seeing what the state’s energy future looks like.

Learn more about the study here


Guest Blog written by:
Lili Gao
Columbia University, Class of 2015
MPA Environmental Science and Policy

Want the latest news from Building Energy Exchange?

Sign Up Below For Updates