Going Virtual with Home Energy Assessments, and Other Pandemic-Era Opportunities

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Jim Madej's picture
CEO Franklin Energy and AM Conservation Group

Jim is the CEO of Franklin Energy and AM Conservation Group. The Franklin companies are committed to helping utilities and other market participants with solutions to drive Energy Efficiency...

  • Member since 2020
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  • Jul 26, 2021

Even in the midst of a pandemic and nationwide lockdowns, utility customers nationwide demonstrated the important role utilities play within local communities. With an overwhelming number of households resorting to both remote work and online school environments, Americans spent $6 billion more on at-home energy usage during the height of the pandemic than the previous quarter.1 The surge in residential energy consumption, coupled with local government guidelines, forced utilities and implementation contractors alike to get more resourceful (read: more creative) with program delivery to meet the needs of a now touchless economy.

Cue virtual programming. With newfound agility and listening skills, plus an impressive amount of innovation, virtual energy assessments proved to be the key to helping U.S. households manage their energy usage and cut costs during an unpredictable time.  

Now, with the worst of the pandemic behind us and most of the nation returning to business as usual, it would be easy to assume that virtual programming can be retired. But the lockdowns taught our nation some lessons that will change the way we do business even after COVID-19 is a distant memory.

Thanks to lowered business costs, remote employment is here to stay—and it’s bringing higher residential energy usage along with it. And you may (or may not) be surprised to learn that as many as 90% of utility customers still prefer a hands-off energy savings option, according to in depth user testing and nationwide studies. For many customers, in-person programs represent an extensive time commitment with solutions that feel overly complex. In this post-pandemic reality, customers simply don’t feel comfortable welcoming strangers into their homes, and many others don’t want to engage face-to-face.

Virtual home energy assessments succeed by providing a streamlined engagement process, a personalized experience focused on the needs of the customer, and the ability to serve a larger overall market by offering a variety of ways to interact. Virtual assessments are quick to launch, take the guess work out of participation, and go a long way in boosting customer satisfaction scores while garnering quick savings.

Virtual assessments that incorporate nurture campaigns and text-based support as a follow-up to video chat see higher energy savings, and because customers are more engaged in every part of the experience, virtual assessments provide an educational opportunity otherwise absent during in-home audits, leading to continued savings through behavior change. What’s more, virtual assessments are proving to be more cost-effective for the utility as well.

 While it is true that virtual assessments can’t replace the value of in-person diagnostic testing and a full energy audit, it’s important to remember that virtual energy assessments have the ability to increase a utility’s engagement with a wider variety of customers. This includes those who work long hours and cannot accommodate an in-person assessment, those who do not want strangers in their homes, and those who simply prefer to avoid in-person interactions. Providing a new way for this audience to engage creates more opportunities for energy and monetary savings down the road.

The hard-to-reach residential customers who were once considered “untouchable” because of location or scheduling, are now engaging in unexpected ways, and virtual assessments provide a way to build excitement, leading to participation in additional programs offered by their utility. And small businesses, who are too often time constrained as it is, are able to forgo an in-depth energy audit to more easily engage in a virtual assessment. With customer experience top-of-mind, the goodwill generated from a positive experience can lead to replacing lighting systems, thermostats, HVAC updates, system control enhancements, and more.

As the nation accelerates towards a net-zero economy, the need to reduce nationwide energy usage, and provide intuitive, engaging grid optimization programs is more relevant and critical than ever. In 2020, utility and energy productivity partners proved their agility, as well as their ability to listen, learn, and adapt.

If we can show the same type of empathy-driven innovation moving forward, we can deliver smarter energy solutions while building stronger local economies on the journey to decarbonization. That’s one outcome of the pandemic that even the most optimistic among us would not ever have imagined.

Jim Madej is the CEO of Franklin Energy who delivers turn-key energy efficiency and grid optimization programs for more than 60 utility and government partners across the US and Canada. The company’s integrated in-house services provide deep personalization and insights, helping energy partners achieve their carbon-reduction and energy productivity goals. In 2020 Franklin Energy launched Curist, a customer-first virtual energy audit program that drives customer engagement by offering cost-effective, verifiable energy savings while providing multi-faceted support. The company has served the utility industry for more than 26 years, with smart solutions implemented by over 1,200 energy professionals.

Eric Van Orden's picture
Eric Van Orden on Jul 27, 2021

Almost 15 years ago, I completed a training for scaling energy audits. I think the organization was Advanced Energy. There was some great technical lessons, as well as attention to "train the trainer". In any case, my big takeaway was spotting home issues from outside the home. For example, if you see a room above a garage, there is a good chance that room is uncomfortable because of poor insulation in the garage ceiling or walls. Or, if you see vents on the roof, you can assume the duct work is in the basement or building envelope. If not, check those ducts for strong connections when you go inside.  Of course, you need to go inside to see opportunities for thermostat and lighting opportunities. That's where the virtual audit comes in to find the low-hanging fruit. 

I hope/expect that virtual audits will help streamline identification of energy savings opportunities and increase participation in rural areas that would otherwise take a long time and expense to visit. Plus, with better energy usage data from smart meters and wireless energy monitors delivered in the mail, modeling can get more sophisticated and accurate. 

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