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National Partnership Aims to Develop an Efficient, Systematic Approach to Zero Net Energy Multifamily Housing Retrofits

image credit: *Credit RMI

The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE), California Energy Commission (CEC) and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) on May 6 launched a partnership to catalyze zero-carbon retrofits for multifamily housing through RMI's REALIZE program.

Spanning California, Massachusetts and Minnesota, the three-year collaboration entails developing pilot projects totaling some 500,000 square feet in multifamily buildings to showcase a systematic approach to carrying out zero-emissions retrofits efficiently and in a manner that's inherently scalable. Funding for the initiative is being provided by a $500,000 DOE Building America award and $7.2 million CEC Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) grant.

Other agencies, including the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority's RetrofitNY program, are participating in the effort to develop mechanisms via which resources can be quickly mobilized, supply chains organized and a market for integrated housing retrofit systems introduced. Six REALIZE pilot projects are slated for development under the RetrofitNY program.

Benefits for low-income households in particular

Low-income families stand to benefit most if the REALIZE multifamily housing net-zero energy housing retrofit initiative proves successful, according to RMI. They spend as much as 20 percent of their incomes to pay for energy as opposed to just 4 percent of average U.S. household.

“Millions of American families spend too much to heat and cool their homes, but homeowners have very few affordable options to fix high heating and cooling costs," Eric Werling, director of DOE's Building America program, was quoted in a press release. "DOE’s Building Technologies Office is tackling some of these challenges, and we are excited to collaborate with key stakeholders like RMI to address the largest energy savings opportunities in the building sector: existing homes.”

Multifamily residential units account for some 20 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, RMI highlights. Just 12,500 of them (0.01 percent) are net-zero in terms of energy, according to the Net Zero Energy Coalition's 2017 inventory.

Prefabricated net-zero energy housing retrofit systems

As it stands today, each net-zero energy housing retrofit is a bespoke, customized project. That makes them complex, time-intensive and costly. Developing an efficient, scalable process and prefabricated components stands to streamline the entire retrofit process and drive down costs significantly, RMI says.

REALIZE aims to coordinate retrofit supply chains and aggregate demand to install high-quality, prefabricated retrofit systems that are modular and easy to install at varying scales. Also participating in the initiative are Passive House Institute U.S., Net Zero Energy Coalition, Re:Vision Architecture, The Levy Partnership, Staengl Engineering and CVM Engineers. Retrofit projects will be financed via savings on utility bills.

Germany's Energiesprong inspired the REALIZE initiative's approach to net zero energy multifamily housing retrofits. Energiesprong has gathered over 100,000 units' worth of affordable multifamily retrofit demand. REALIZE and partners are working to adapt that approach to the U.S. market. They're being helped by Energiesprong, which is an official strategic partner on both the DOE and CEC pilot programs.

"On a mission to industrialize and scale zero-emissions retrofits"

The DOE Building America research funding will support pilot projects aimed at developing a cost-effective approach to retrofits and "to provide industry with a compelling case study for prefabricated retrofits that achieve net-zero ready status," RMI explains.

The CEC grant will support the carrying out of 300,000 square feet of demonstration projects for disadvantaged communities across California. In doing so, manufacturing, energy services and contractor markets to provide zero-emissions retrofits at scale will be organized, according to RMI.

The Association for Energy Affordability, University of California Davis, California Housing Partnership Corporation, City of San Francisco, Prospect Silicon Valley, Integral Group, David Baker Architecture and Stone Associates are working with RMI "to streamline financing, permitting and installation to create turnkey, net-zero retrofit solutions in California," according to the press release.

“RMI is on a mission to industrialize and scale zero-emissions retrofits by overcoming barriers and closing gaps in the marketplace,” said RMI Managing Director Jamie Mandel. “Inherent in our goal is a need to ensure that a significant portion of the economic activity benefits low- to moderate-income and minority communities.”

RMI sets out REALIZE’s strategic set of activities as follows:

  • Demand Generation and Aggregation: Working with building owners to map out a plan to achieve cost-effective zero-over-time retrofits across their portfolios, while harnessing the power of group purchasing across portfolios to improve manufacturers’ product offerings and reduce pricing.

  • Product Development: Engaging market- and public-sector allies to bring factory-constructed building panels (including windows and doors) and integrated mechanical system packages (heating, cooling, hot water, ventilation, solar energy inverter and integrated system controls) to market in order to quickly and effectively retrofit and decarbonize buildings.

  • Project Design and Implementation: Facilitating projects by bringing together real estate owners and managers, project development and implementation companies, financiers, contractors and workers.

  • Streamlined Financing: Coordinating a range of standardized approaches and products that are suitable to a variety of building owner needs, we will collaborate with housing finance agencies, banks, community development finance institutions, and other financial organizations to enable more retrofits to be fit into mortgage and other energy and water project financing tools in the market.

  • Inclusive Economy: Partnering with the Emerald Cities Collaborative and local entities to recruit and provide capacity-building services to minority, veteran and women contractors, connecting them to project opportunities and labor, preparing them to take on bigger and more complex projects.

Andrew Burger's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 7, 2019 11:58 pm GMT

The multi-home efficiency issue is a real one-- split incentives, inability to do full retrofits on your own as an owner/renter of just one unit, and more. The issue is only made worse when you consider how long the lifetime of buildings are, so inefficiencies persist for decades

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