Time to Optimize Thermal Performance in 100M Homes
America has more than 100 million leaky homes that are prime for energy efficiency and electrification upgrades, including air sealing and insulation. Without serious engagement by utilities and contractors to address the issue of thermal leakage, the lofty goals the Biden Administration has set for carbon reduction and electrification will not be achieved, says Rick Barnett, a green builder and remodeling contractor. Barnett has been an advocate for thermal envelope efficiency and green building for more than 30 years.
This week, Insulation Institute talks with Barnett about the challenge and what it might take to spur the retrofit activity needed.
Emissions are Growing
Global carbon emissions dropped at the onset of COVID-19 but have started growing again. Further, the annual increase in carbon pollution over the past six decades has grown 100 times faster than previous natural increases. With the acceleration of this trend, the possibility of a 1.5-degree C warming peak may have passed.
“To meet the administration’s 2030 goals, the U.S. must cut energy emissions by roughly 45 percent,” Barnett said. “Also, in just seven years, electricity generation from non-fossil fuel sources must increase from 1700 TWh in 2020 to 3700 TWh.” If you improve the airtightness and insulation levels of buildings, both space heating and air conditioning loads are reduced.
Because emissions and energy consumption are too high, and clean energy powers only 40 percent of the grid, the Biden Administration’s goals can’t be achieved with existing decarbonization measures. “A clean energy future requires belt-tightening on the demand side,” Barnett noted. “On average more than half of a U.S. household’s annual energy consumption is for space heating and air conditioning. Much of it is lost through thermal leakage. We must rapidly scale thermal retrofits to combat this problem.”
Eliminating Thermal Leakage: An Overlooked Opportunity for Contractors and Utilities
About 600 utility efficiency programs emphasize high-efficiency products such as ENERGY STAR appliances rather than targeting thermal leakage. Thermal efficiency is the only option for pulling excessive demand into better balance with a clean energy supply.
Fortunately, Barnett says, there’s something we can do about it. “Local contractors can use readily available products to eliminate wasted energy. A continuous thermal seal cuts demand by at least 5,000 KWh (17 million BTU) every year for the average home’s long life. A home’s reduced energy demand can be measured and monetized with performance scoring, such as the RESNET HERS index. At the right price, a utility could buy thermal retrofits rather than more energy.”
Thermal leakage drives up the expense of peak demand, a time in which energy costs can double. Community leaders should encourage building contractors to engage energy suppliers about the value of measurable demand reduction. Significant benefits can result from these community conversations:
- Increased comfort for owners and renters
- Reduced peak demand expense
- Unsubsidized jobs
- Reduced Emissions
We need massive, broad-scale action to retrofit 100 million American homes with air sealing and insulation. While utilities throughout the country are grappling with increasing energy demand, one sure way to reduce the load is by addressing the thermal envelopes of existing U.S. homes. Contractors should also work with utilities to affect the massive retrofit activity that must happen.