If you took a Geography course over 20 years ago, you might recall the subject involving little more than memorizing the locations of continents, countries, cities, as well as climate and cultural facts. In that time, many universities have expanded their geography programs by entering the world of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS for short.
HARC’s mission boils down to a simple idea that involves complex challenges – helping people thrive and nature flourish. The Energy Efficiency Program typifies that aim as it works to find better ways for cutting power consumption, thereby saving money while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, health-threatening air pollution and other environmental impacts.
As Gavin Dillingham, Research Scientist in Clean Energy Policy puts it, “Identifying and studying the key policies, processes and programs to reduce the consumption of energy resources in an economically, socially and environmentally beneficial manner is a key focus of HARC.”
Dillingham came to HARC in 2012 after earning a PhD in public policy at Rice University (where he focused on natural resource and urban land use issues); serving as Sustainability Director for the City of Houston (seeking ways to improve the energy efficiency of the municipal government’s own operations), and launching the Energy Management Program at the Houston Independent School District.
That experience was crucial in preparing him to work on energy efficiency and related matters at HARC, where his colleagues on the Energy Efficiency team are Jennifer Ronk, Ross Tomlin and Satish Ravindran.
Their efforts include analyzing energy efficiency policies and institutions’ demand (energy-use) management practices to help improve energy-saving programs by identifying the factors associated with successful outcomes.
A pair of continuing projects exemplifies that work. One involves a collaboration with Rice University researchers to study various aspects of home-weatherization programs in Houston. Another, launched in partnership with the Arlington Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has been studying energy-management programs at school districts across Texas.
Comparing different approaches in energy-efficiency programs to find out what works best is a key element that the two research efforts have in common.
In the weatherization study, for instance, researchers have been looking at data from two somewhat different programs – one carried out by the City of Houston with a federal energy-efficiency grant and one conducted by CenterPoint Energy, a utility that provides electricity and natural gas to the Houston-Galveston region.
The analysis ranges from simple actions taken to weatherize homes, like weather stripping and caulking, to more mechanical applications such as heating and air conditioning systems.
The ultimate aim, Dillingham said, is to identify program components that are the most effective at cutting energy use: “Is there one type of program or delivery mechanism that’s more effective than others? How are different types of programs leading to different outcomes?”
In the case of the collaboration with Arlington school administrators, researchers wanted to find out which energy-management programs are working well in school districts, Dillingham said.
The economic implications are crucial for public schools, where a typical district’s energy budget is commonly exceeded only by its personnel costs.
About 60 school districts, ranging in size from huge to tiny, responded to survey questions about their energy-management efforts. They included districts in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio metro areas and represented all regions of the state except the Panhandle. Arlington officials wanted to learn what was proving effective – or not – in different districts across the state that have energy-management programs.
It’s largely unexamined territory, Dillingham said. “No one’s really doing the program evaluations and impact evaluations on a large scale to see what works or if we’re just spinning our wheels” in schools’ energy-saving efforts.
One of the study’s preliminary findings may be surprising: Some districts with energy-management programs also have the highest energy consumption.
“Having an energy-management program in place doesn't necessarily improve your energy usage in your school,” Dillingham said. “You have to have some specific components, some reporting structures in there to make a difference. Just to have an onsite energy manager doesn't necessarily mean you have a good program.”
HARC’s work on energy efficiency has potential implications reaching beyond the specific programs it has been analyzing.
In the case of the Houston weatherization projects, for example, one question the researchers are considering is whether features added to a home with the aim of cutting energy use may sometimes have the unintended consequence of prompting residents to use more energy when their bills go down.
This is a phenomenon called the “rebound effect,” which has been the subject of study as well as considerable political commentary in recent years.
Critics of mandatory energy-efficiency programs (including some linked to energy-producing industries) have argued that the rebound effect, documented in some research, supports their case. On the other hand, a team of researchers based at Yale University, the University of California at Davis and the Environmental Defense Fund, asserted in a paper in the scientific journal Nature that the phenomenon doesn’t always occur, has been “overplayed” and is “a distraction” from important efforts to conserve energy.
“There is still much to be learned about the effectiveness and longevity of energy efficiency programs,” Dillingham stated. “This issue is particularly important as we look for cost effective solutions to reduce grid congestion and ensure there is enough electric capacity in the market to ensure grid reliability.”