Mass Save or Massive Failure?

Early last fall the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) once again named Massachusetts as the most energy efficient state in the country. Massachusetts qualified for the distinction in no small part because of its utility sponsored efficiency program, known as Mass Save. The Mass Save program scored more points than any other state for its efforts, leading in both dollars per capita spent as well as projected savings. As a contractor participating in the implementation of the program, I felt a real sense of satisfaction in that news and shared it with pride with my crew.

But not all advocates of low energy residential remodeling find reason for pride in the ACEEE report. There are a number of voices in the business questioning the overall and long-term effectiveness of top-down and bureaucratically driven efficiency programs. Matt Gordon is one among these voices and he has written a well-considered critique of the structure of the Mass Save program. His structural critique is built on a report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab that has Massachusetts spending more public money per kilowatt-hour saved than any other State. Gordon’s recommendation is that efficiency programs should follow the model created by the solar industry for scaling up renewable energy programs. I find Gordon’s argument to be a little too academic. He somewhat ironically calls for a less top-down approach but from a rather lofty theoretical point of view, a point of view that in my mind does not take account of what is actually involved in the process of making an existing house in a specific market more energy efficient.

The same cannot be said about the critique sounded by Nathan Adams. Adams is as critical of top-down approaches as Gordon, but as a former weatherization contractor he launches his critique from the trenches. What makes Adams’ critique of the efficiency programs so compelling is not just that he speaks as one of us, but he recognizes the importance of accountability in a de-centralized incentive program and offers a concrete means of creating a program that allows for flexibility and innovation on the ground, while providing a system of accountability that is independent of the people doing the work. This is an important addition because efficiency programs of the past that gave a strong degree of autonomy to installers failed largely because there was no real accountability to an outside entity. Work quality suffered; and customers felt, and in some cases no doubt were, taken advantage of. Adams calls his proposal the “One Knob” incentive program, and he spells out the details of the program in a series of blog entries on the Green Building Advisor website.

So are Gordon and Adams essentially right? Are so-called top-down efficiency programs such as Mass Save doomed to fail at addressing the massive problem of energy use that we face? I can’t answer that. I do know that in the seven years that I have worked in the Mass Save program it has evolved and continues to evolve in a direction that is increasingly empowering of the contractors who do the work. Nevertheless, both of these men have caused me to direct a re-energized critical look at the work our company is doing in the Mass Save program and have left me more open to hearing complaints from my employees—especially those critiques that around the loss of morale that comes with installing cookie cutter or half-measures on houses that could really benefit from serious work.