Hidden Barriers to Energy Efficiency

At their core, energy efficiency programs exist to help the market overcome barriers preventing the adoption of energy-efficient equipment or behaviors. Some barriers, like the high first cost of equipment, are obvious and often targeted, but they may mask other obstacles that are even harder to overcome. Better understanding and addressing these overlooked barriers can help programs increase their participation and savings.

Commonly Addressed Barriers

When developing a program, the program administrator should create a program theory/logic model (PTLM) to list the barriers preventing the adoption of energy efficiency, followed by the activities to help the market overcome these barriers, then the outputs and outcomes resulting from these activities.

In most PTLMs, the most common barriers programs seek to address are:

  • Financial: Energy-efficient equipment is often more expensive than less efficient equipment. Programs often provide incentives to cover some of the incremental cost between the energy-efficient equipment and the baseline equipment. Incentives can be downstream (given to the equipment purchaser), midstream (given to the contractor or distributor), or upstream (given to the store).
  • Education: Often customers are ill-informed about the energy-efficient options available or their benefits. Programs often include some sort of educational aspect to teach participants about energy efficiency.
  • Training: Related to education, some programs help train contractors on energy-efficient technology, products, or behaviors. This helps contractors stock efficient equipment, recommend it to their customers, and install it correctly.

Overlooked Barriers

Programs most commonly address the barriers discussed above because they are easy to identify and address. However, there are other barriers limiting the adoption of energy efficiency which cannot be easily overcome as simply.

  • Seasonality: Areas that have high levels of seasonality, such as beach towns with large numbers of summer tourists, face different barriers that a simple incentive cannot address. These include:
    • A short window for improvements: People want to enjoy the nice weather and businesses and landlords want to maximize their sales and rental income during a short seasonal period. Additionally, the home or business may be unoccupied or closed during the offseason. This means that the window to make energy efficiency improvements may be limited to only a few weeks or months per year. This issue can be exacerbated if everyone in the area is looking to complete projects at the same time.
    • Contractor availability: Because of the relative lack of work compared to year-round communities, seasonal communities often have a smaller pool of qualified contractors. That likely means few contractors with experience with energy efficiency.
    • Geography: Remote communities face additional barriers. For example, island communities can be at the mercy of ferries to transport contractor staff and equipment. Bad weather can result in lost time from canceled ferries or even sea sickness. If multiple days are required for the installation, high housing costs or lack of available lodging makes projects more expensive or complicated.
  • Health and Safety: In many cases, energy efficiency improvements cannot be completed because of the age or characteristics of the buildings. Weatherization and HKnob and tube wiringome Performance with ENERGY STAR programs often have health and safety requirements that must be met before insulation can be installed. This can include asbestos and lead remediation, replacing the roof, improving the ventilation of combustion appliances, and updating the electrical system. Speaking from experience from a recent renovation in my home (see picture), finding and needing to replace knob and tube wiring is not easy or cheap. Fixing health and safety issues can add thousands of dollars to an already very expensive project, even with incentives. Some programs, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program, allow for energy-related health and safety improvements to be included in the incentives, but I am quite certain that the chance of running into these issues prevents many people from even investigating potential energy efficiency renovations.[1] Weatherization and whole-home efficiency programs should understand that this is a major barrier for would-be participants.

Evaluating Barriers

Evaluators also need to understand overlooked barriers to evaluate if and how well programs are addressing them. For known barriers, research with program participants can help. For less understood barriers or to uncover barriers, evaluators should also include research with non-participants and near-participants (those who interacted with the program at some level but ultimately did not participate). It is from those customers that we can learn the most about what programs could be doing to help customers overcome barriers but are not.

More research on barriers can also help evaluators get more accurate estimates of program attribution and achievable potential. If all of the barriers and program activities meant to overcome the barriers are not understood and not included in free-ridership research, some of the savings attributable to the program may be missing in its net-to-gross ratio. Additionally, if barriers are overlooked or not understood, it may affect program planning by including potential savings that are simply not achievable because of insurmountable obstacles.


[1] Rule #1 of owning an old home is to never open a wall unless you absolutely have to because there are always unknown issues behind it.

Back to Blog