Picture of two smiling interns standing by an EWEB truck
EWEB Partners with City, UO to Rate Rentals for Energy Efficiency 06/13/2017

Did you know that rental units comprise half of the available housing in Eugene? A 2017 study by the University of Oregon Business Consulting Group identified that more than 6,000 of those rentals are likely in need of energy upgrades. For this reason, our Customer Solutions team launched a new program this year to help tenants and property owners better understand the energy costs associated with their rentals, and to highlight savings opportunities from improvements such as duct sealing, insulation, and high efficiency heating systems.

For many of our customers, "affordability" is more than the cost per kilowatt hour for electricity. Energy efficiency plays an important role in how high an electric bill is. One way to measure efficiency is with a Home Energy Score (HES). Similar to the miles-per-gallon rating for a car, the U.S. Department of Energy's Home Energy Score communicates how efficient a home is based on its "envelope"—the ceilings, floors, walls and windows—as well as its heating, cooling and water heating systems. Tenants receive a Home Energy Score ranging from 1 to 10 after about an hour-long assessment by a state-certified home energy assessor. A score of 1 means the home would benefit from energy improvements, and a score of 10 means the home uses energy very efficiently. The report shows the home's current score, as well as the potential score after recommended upgrades. The report also shows estimated utility bill savings and carbon footprint reductions that could be achieved after investment in the energy-saving improvements.

In 2012 EWEB became a Home Energy Score Partner with U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the first utility in Oregon to do so. Since then, the DOE program has steadily gained momentum nationwide. In 2016 the Portland City Council approved an ordinance that will require homeowners to get a Home Energy Score before they put their house up for sale.

EWEB has offered on-site energy audits for homes (both owner-occupied and rentals) and businesses for a number of years, but the new HES program is focused exclusively on rental housing during this launch period. 

"We care about energy efficiency because it helps our customers manage their bills and make them more affordable," says Matt Lutter, a specialist in our Customer Solutions department. "The program focuses on rental housing because many rentals are inefficient and costly to live in, and there are often significant barriers to making efficiency improvements in these homes."

One barrier is what is known as "split incentives." Property owners don't make efficiency investments because the renters pay the energy bills, and renters don't make investments in property they don't own.

"When rental owners see the Home Energy Score report, we hope they will be more likely to invest in the efficiency upgrades that will make their rentals more comfortable and affordable, even if they are not paying the utility bills," says Matt.

A Home Energy Score has other benefits for both landlords and tenants. Property owners who are looking for a competitive advantage can use the Home Energy Score to "market" their units to prospective tenants. Renters can compare the efficiency and costs of various units before signing a lease. The expectation is that, over time, this kind of transparency makes energy-efficient rental housing the sought-after standard for both owners and tenants.  

Sample Home Energy Score Report

A sample Home Energy Score report. 

Partnerships make the Home Energy Score program successful

To get the program off the ground, we partnered with the University of Oregon's Department of Sustainability and the City of Eugene. In late 2016, EWEB trained nine interns from UO to become state-approved Home Energy Assessors. The City of Eugene paid the interns' wages, making this a cost-effective effort for EWEB. The City considers energy score adoption to be a high-priority action for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (as outlined in their Climate and Energy Action Plan), so the partnership supports that action as well.

The partnerships make the program a potential win for customers, students, EWEB, and the planet.

"In order for the program to be a success, it has been important that the students learn some core skills so they are able to safely and accurately collect the necessary data while they are in tenants' homes," says Matt. "These skills will also be valuable to the students as they seek employment in the building industry, both locally and abroad, since all buildings use energy and many of the concepts apply to a variety of building types."

Interns worked in pairs, inspecting various access points such as the attic and crawl spaces, hot water heater, and windows.

"It's been interesting to learn about different ceiling construction types and how that actually plays into the efficiency of a home," said intern Janet Haselden. "And thinking about how to make spaces more efficient by not having huge windows; the design really matters in a home."

Home Energy Assessors also have learned how to "think on their feet" and communicate their knowledge to the tenants. "Being knowledgeable and able to meet the customer's expectations is important because they trust EWEB," intern Jenefer Heredia said.

Janet and Jenefer are third and fourth-year architecture students who jumped on the opportunity to work for EWEB. "One of the appealing things to me was the fact that we would become certified [with the Construction Contractors Board], and that looks really great on a resume," Janet said.

Since the program launched in January, the interns have completed 215 home assessments, averaging about 10-15 per week. Many homes have received poor scores. After the UO spring term ends, Matt says we will evaluate the program and determine next steps, which could include things like publishing Home Energy scores to help tenants shop for affordable housing, refining and continuing the program into the fall, offering Home Energy Scores for multifamily housing, and adjusting the program delivery to better motivate owners to take action.

Matt has seen some property owners take action as a result of the Home Energy Score program, and is looking forward to seeing more. "The program attempts to deliver affordability to the renters who need it by helping the owners with needed energy upgrades," he says. "The owners see improved tenant retention while tenants save money and enjoy better living conditions. Some rentals also have had fossil fuel equipment replaced with efficient heat pumps, which helps reduce carbon pollution. We hope to prove that the program benefits rental property owners, their tenants, and the environment."

If you have questions about the Home Energy Score program, please contact us at rentals@eweb.org.

Learn more about EWEB's energy efficiency rebate and loan programs.