HELPing Smaller Cities take Climate Action

May 26, 2021 | By: Anthony Roy

Montpelier Vermont
US cities are great laboratories for combating climate change. The climate action plans in existence in most major cities have rightly been celebrated as important counterpoints to the ever-shifting federal government position on climate. When large cities take important climate policy steps, the spotlight of national media attention shines brightly. Slightly less triumphalist—though no less important—successes are being achieved in smaller cities, and towns across the country, reminding policymakers not to neglect the important advances made in these less well-known communities. 

Aerial view of Milwaukie, OregonEarth Advantage® has witnessed these outcomes in the work we do to support home energy labeling policies. In partnership with RMI, Earth Advantage hosted over 30 cities in a 6-month cohort, called the Home Energy Labeling Partnership (HELP), that focused on best practices for developing home energy labeling policies. The cohort was made up of some of the largest North American municipalities, as well as a number of mid-size and smaller ones. Since that facilitated cohort process concluded in early 2020 and Earth Advantage began directly consulting with cities on their energy labeling programming, it is striking that it is the smaller cities that have subsequently made the quickest progress on home energy labeling policy development and implementation. 

Home energy labeling policies have been in place for some time in cities like Austin, TX (pop 978,000), Portland, OR (pop 654,000), Berkeley, CA (pop 123,000), and Minneapolis, MN (pop 430,000). But it’s Montpelier, VT (pop 7,500), and Milwaukie, OR (pop 21,000) that are the two most recent examples of cities that have begun to enforce the use of home energy labels. Each city council unanimously passed a policy requiring the disclosure of home energy information in local real estate transactions. These home energy labeling policies require sellers to make standardized and comparable home energy performance information available to prospective buyers in listings. 

Because of limited staffing capacity to implement new sustainability policies, smaller cities like Montpelier and Milwaukie often struggle to identify climate actions that can be feasibly implemented. Several conditions now make home energy labeling a good policy option for these smaller, less resourced cities. While cities are best positioned to authorize that home sellers provide home energy information to buyers, state governments can help these cities by developing consistent standards, enabling technical infrastructure, and supporting training and a consumer hotline. The state of Oregon’s support of home energy labeling at the local government level has helped reduce the staffing burden on Milwaukie’s one-person sustainability department. The implementation requirements created by a new city policy are manageable because of the state’s programmatic support. 

In-home assessments are also becoming less of a necessity than in the past. For example, Montpelier is tapping into an automated, free-of-charge “home energy profile” that uses public records information and some homeowner-supplied data to generate an energy label. At the same time, Earth Advantage’s Home Energy Score team is completing national testing of a Remote Home Energy Score Assessment protocol through a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)-funded research project. The results are looking promising. Remote energy assessments via video feed have the potential to enable smaller, rural cities to more easily support home energy labeling programs without having to pay out-of-town assessors to make the expensive trip to do in-home assessments. 

Regardless of city size, a home energy labeling policy addresses a consistent market failure in all types of markets: homebuyers don’t have access to verified information about the expected energy costs of a home before making a purchase decision. Greater transparency into a home’s estimated energy costs can help homebuyers easily compare various homes, take their financial circumstances into account, and then weigh their home buying options. The energy labeling policies provide consumer protection, a market-based incentive to make energy efficiency upgrades, local jobs and businesses, and greater awareness of energy cost burdens for lower-income households. These benefits are resonating in all kinds of cities, regardless of size or geographic location. 

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LinkedIn: Anthony Roy