energy overview

Estimates suggest that residential buildings account for some twenty percent of the nation's energy consumption. [1] Improving the energy-efficiency of these buildings helps to reduce this energy drain, lowering utility costs for homeowners and tenants, multifamily property owners, and managers, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels. Energy-efficiency measures can also improve the condition of the home, making it a healthier place to live. Click here to learn more about the health benefits of energy-efficiency measures.

Low- and moderate-income families, who tend to live in older, less efficient homes, especially stand to benefit from efforts to improve home energy efficiency. Performance data collected through the Weatherization Assistance Program, which enables low-income homeowners and, increasingly, owners of eligible multi-family properties, to undertake modest energy-efficiency improvements, indicates that a typical participating household saves $437 on annual utility bills after weatherization. [2] These savings can help families avoid making tradeoffs between paying their utility bills and covering the cost of other essentials.

Owners of affordable and market-rate multifamily properties also stand to realize significant cost savings through improvements in home energy efficiency. Most directly, lower levels of energy use lead to lower utility bills in common areas and, especially for master-metered properties, lower operating costs in the building as a whole. To the extent that certification as a high-performing building helps to attract tenants and reduce turnover, energy-efficiency measures can also help to reduce the expense associated with turning units over to new tenants. Finally, for the subset of the market that is publicly-owned or subsidized, greater energy-efficiency may help owners to avoid operating deficits as utility costs increase.

This section of the Toolbox examines ways to improve energy efficiency in the residential sector, with a special focus on tools targeted on low- and moderate-income households. While these families often live in smaller homes and consume less energy overall than their higher-income neighbors, they tend to use more energy per square foot of living space and may have the most to gain from policies and programs that result in lower utility bills. [3]
A Webinar presentation accompanying the July 2010 launch of this section featured a discussion of the CNT Energy's Energy Savers program by Peter Ludwig, Energy Efficiency Programs Manager at CNT Energy and and comments from Mary Wenzel, Vice President of Environmental Affairs at Wells Fargo. Click here to view a recording of the webinar, or click here to download slides from Peter's PowerPoint presentation.

Please note that the Webinar file is very large and may take a few minutes to load.

The tools in this section represent a broad spectrum of components in a comprehensive energy-efficiency program. These include:
  • Provide low-cost financing -- Supporting energy-efficient upgrades in homes with financing tools designed to help families better afford the costs
  • Build contractor capacity -- Ensuring the quality and availability of energy-efficient retrofits and rehab, and helping to create a skilled workforce
While we strive to be comprehensive in the range of energy-efficiency tools covered, this section focuses primarily on strategies for improving the energy performance of existing buildings because many low- and moderate-income families live in older homes. With some modifications, however, most of the tools covered on this site could be applied to both existing buildings and new construction; similarly, with some exceptions, many of the
tools work for both single-family homes and multifamily buildings.

It is important to note that the policies and programs discussed in these sub-sections are not intended to stand alone -- rather, they function most effectively when adopted in conjunction with one another. For example, an energy-efficiency program that does not provide favorable financing to cover the up-front cost of improvements will reach a limited audience, leaving out many working families that may need the financing to afford the improvements. Similarly, lacking a workforce skilled in energy efficiency, communities will be unable to undertake energy audits or home retrofits at scale.

The role of federal funding

While the content on is focused primarily on
Throughout the toolkit we note cases where a policy works best or is most commonly applied in a specific sector of the housing stock.

For quick reference, however, a summary chart provides an overview of topics and subtopics covered in this toolkit, as well as the housing types and stakeholders directly affected. Click on the thumbnail to download the Excel file.
actions that may be taken at the state and local levels, it is important
to point out that federal support drives many energy-efficiency initiatives for homeowners and owners of multifamily properties -- from ENERGY STAR rebates for high-efficiency appliances to Weatherization Assistance Program grants and tax credits for energy-efficient retrofits. With passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), funding allocations for many of these programs increased exponentially, enabling many communities to scale up their energy-efficiency activities. Learn more about federal funding sources for energy efficiency.

Some of the federal programs that received funding increases or were capitalized for the first time under ARRA provide one-time support for discrete activities, such as weatherization grants for home retrofits. Other programs are more flexible, allowing for a range of different uses to achieve ongoing benefits for individual households, property owners, developers, and others. For example, State Energy Program (SEP) awards may be used to establish loan loss reserves, interest rate buy-down programs, or revolving loan funds in support of eligible program activities. (See guidance related to loan-loss reserves, revolving loan funds, and other SEP programs here.) Similarly, grantees under the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program (EECBG) may use a portion of funds to establish revolving loan funds or issue sub-grants to nongovernmental organizations in support of energy-efficiency programs. [4]

In some states, federal programs help to provide gap funding that brings the cost of energy-efficiency improvements within reach of low- and moderate-income families. Delaware, for example, is using State Energy Program funding for its "Home Performance with Energy Star" program, which brings the cost of home energy audits and retrofits within reach of households that earn too much to qualify for the Weatherization Assistance Program, but too little to undertake these activities on their own. [5] It is important to note, however, that for the lowest income households, grant funding may still be required to bring about improvements in residential energy efficiency. Programs such as the Weatherization Assistance Program have been specially designed to reach households in this income group.

For more information on funding programs...

The North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council maintain a comprehensive repository of funding for energy efficiency at the federal, state, and local levels in their online Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE).

Innovation and next steps

Federal funds provide an important funding source for residential energy-efficiency efforts, but many of the promising practices discussed in this section of can be adopted directly by states and localities without federal support. For example, states can play an important role in convening the various parties that may be involved in residential energy-efficiency initiatives, including stakeholders that may not typically work together such as state housing finance agencies, state and local energy offices, and departments of labor. Similarly, states and localities can help to foster the development of a consolidated RFP for retrofit funding or a "one-stop shop" for energy efficiency -- generally non-profit organizations that offer a full complement of services for improving home energy performance.

Many of these innovative programs involve bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders who typically do not work together, including representatives from state and local housing and energy offices and departments of labor and education, members of the real estate industry, housing advocates, and others. While we will continue to update this section of the site to reflect fast-moving changes in residential energy efficiency, visitors are also encouraged to join a related discussion on the Forum. The Forum is the interactive section of this site that allows practitioners to interact with their colleagues across the country and ask questions, share insights and best practices, and connect around issues of common interest.

Learn more about federal funding sources for energy efficiency

Learn more about the health benefits of energy-efficiency measures

Go back to the main landing page to view other sections on improving residential home energy efficiency.

[1] Energy Consumption by Sector, 1949-2009. 2009. Washington, DC: US Energy Information Administration.
[2] Weatherization Assistance Program. Web page. 2010. Washington, DC: US Department of Energy.
[3] Income, Energy Efficiency and Emissions: The Critical Relationship. [PDF] 2008. Washington, DC: Energy Programs Consortium.
[4] The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act: Understanding the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants Program. [PDF] Oakland, CA: Green for All.
[5] Obama Administration Awards More than $162 Million for State Energy Programs in Seven States and Territories. July 2009. Press Release. Washington, DC: US Department of Energy.