New Study Finds Subsidized Weatherization Programs Aren’t As Efficient As They Should Be

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Energy-saving appliances have become the focus of many renovation and repair projects for homes and businesses alike, with a multitude of tax benefits and promises of lower energy bills. But what happens if these savings don’t actually pay off like they’re supposed to?

According to a paper recently published by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago, it seems that many energy efficiency programs — especially those backed by federal and state subsidies — aren’t actually effective when it comes to reducing household energy consumption.

Many of these programs focus on weatherizing houses by providing subsidized home repairs that focus on insulation; the programs may focus on small projects like sealing up cracks along windows, or they may provide help for major projects like furnace replacements.

In theory, these programs should result in lower energy consumption, especially for low-income households, and the programs are often based on concrete research that has proven the effectiveness of energy-efficient appliances. An old water heater, for example, can account for 30% of a home’s entire energy bill; replacing it with a new water heater can result in hundreds of dollars saved each year.

In reality, however, these programs end up failing and costing the government more money in the long run, contrary to what they’re supposed to do. But, as the Wall Street Journal and Vox both note, this isn’t because the programs or appliances are deficient.

Instead, consumers end up falling into what the WSJ calls an “energy efficiency gap” because they’re more likely to “[pass] up investments that reduce their fuel and electric bills” after taking advantage of subsidized insulation and repair projects.

Rather than continuing to turn down their thermostats or spending a bit more on energy-efficient lightbulbs, homeowners are actually more likely to develop habits that result in increased energy consumption after they take part in subsidized energy savings programs.

To use Vox’s explanation, “engineering studies might not always capture the messiness of the real world… and there are all sorts of human behaviors that might reduce the effectiveness of efficiency investments” — not to mention plenty of “irregularly shaped” homes that don’t provide the maximum insulation, or appliances that are installed improperly.

In one respect, the recent findings are positive: energy-efficient appliances are, after all, as efficient as they claim to be. However, understanding how these appliances work in the real world may end up being the more difficult task.

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