May 4th, 2010

When it comes to Energy Efficiency, Do We Need Walmart?


Most of my friends have never heard of Mass SAVE, but my good friend Tom signed up for a Mass SAVE energy audit.  The auditor spent half an hour in his place, promised big rebates, and Tom agreed to have weatherization and insulation work done.  Four weeks later (two days before the scheduled work), Tom got a call from a customer service representative informing him that he no longer qualified for the rebate and would have to spend an extra $1700 out-of-pocket.  “Never mind.”  Said Tom.

Let’s assume the end goal is an enormous wave of energy efficiency retrofits.  Looking at that end goal from an entrepreneur’s perspective, regardless of your political views, isn’t the current setup in Massachusetts almost comically bad?  And MA has one of the best programs in the country.

I think there’s a fear of spending the money too fast and administering a huge program like that is clumsy.  There’s always a balance between wanting to spend the money and fear of spending it badly.  I think fear is winning.  We need to find alternate routes around these programs and not rely on them to fix everything.

Here’s a thought exercise: How might Walmart make energy efficiency easy and affordable for homeowners?  I know Walmart is evil, but what might they get right that we’re currently getting wrong?

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Brian Hayden

About Brian Hayden

Brian Hayden founded HeatSpring Learning Institute in 2007. He's an accredited geothermal installer and creates technical training programs on geothermal and solar systems. HeatSpring has been featured in Business Week's "America's Top 25 Promising Social Entrepreneurs"

  • Noel Kelly

    Hi Brian,
    We spoke briefly at the Nexus event a few weeks ago. Please drop me an email with your contact info.
    Our clients have had tremendous success with the Masssave program over the years. Why was your friend refused?

    As for Walmart… here is an interesting take on their much publicized greening.

    It is so hard not to be cynical… I believe the answer lies in “fine with me so long as it doesn’t cost me anything and doesn’t inconvenience me either”.

  • Jesse Gossett

    Great thought experiment. I know there’s been talk (and might actually been happening, haven’t checked) that Lowes or Home Depot or one of those was offering plug and play solar systems. Efficiency should be so much easier! Maybe an instructional video (or interactive) that walked people through their own energy audit, all the easy stuff, and sent them in the right direction to get it done (whether that be hiring an expert or going to buy their own caulk)?

    I also really like what HEET does (, maybe we could incorporate tupperware somehow and it’d explode…?

    Or maybe there’s a way to get boyscouts or kids involved somehow? How many lawn mowing businesses do you know started by 12 year olds? What about turning that into a home audit business (not saying it’s child’s play, but there are a few simple, low hanging fruits that could be done by young, aspiring entrepreneurs!). All we’d need is a simple ‘tool-kit’ for them to invest in. Wow, treading into pyramid scheme, AND taking advantage of kids. Anyone want to run with the idea…?!

  • Peter Troast

    Fair question. My answer: you get what you pay for.

    The sorry story of Mass SAVE points out the challenges we face in getting home energy efficiency to scale. In the interests of impacting as many homes as possible, which is certainly an important goal, there is an inherent lowering of quality, standards and service. It is very important that people understand the difference between an energy audit that takes a half hour and and a true, whole house energy audit. The latter involves diagnostic testing using a blower door and infrared camera, assesses health related issues related to mold and air quality, and tests appliances for combustion (carbon monoxide) safety. At the conclusion, a good auditor will provide a detailed report that becomes a multi-year road map for tackling the energy use, comfort and safety of your home over time. Depending on location, this is a $350 to 500 expense that is worth every penny.

    The level of building science involved, and the appreciation by a seasoned, certified energy auditor of the interconnected physics of a home is not something to be trusted to low price providers.

    Peter Troast
    Energy Circle

  • Brian Hayden

    Noel – my email address is (is it bad form to share that in a blog? Hopefully not.)

    I’m not really sure why my friend’s rebate disappeared suddenly. It’s a good question and I need to find out. But no matter the reason, my friend Tom doesn’t understand and has lost momentum on making these efficiency upgrades. Even if there’s a good reason, the process failed Tom and needs to be improved to make it easy for others.

    Jesse – great ideas. The boyscout idea is interesting…obviously it would need to be a group with significant training and oversight, but the compensation could come in the form of a recurring charitable donation to their group.

    Peter – I totally agree that you get what you pay for. There’s a relatively small number of people who really know what they’re doing and they need to be compensated for their time and energy.

  • Peter Troast

    Jesse’s point, and really what this whole discussion is about, is how do you get the uninitiated started? As long as we can make a clear distinction about what a true whole house energy audit is, then almost anything to get going works–HEET is great, Boyscouts, Cool Communities, house parties, etc. The key, though, is to make sure those that receive a “clipboard” audit don’t assume that the work is done.

  • Megan Atkinson

    One really successful program in my area (Lansing, MI) has been working with the Boys and Girls Club. They have a program at B&GC called “Get City” over here and these kids are highly focused, really driven tikes that tackle energy issues head on. I’ve sat on a couple discussion panels for them and the kids are just amazing. They would definitely train well for a clipboard type audit. We’ve found that it’s also a great way to get kids fired up about the green economy.

  • Chris Williams


    Thanks a really interesting point, it certainly fits in well with education. Energy Circle has an interesting program along these lines called the “moolah maker”( which makes it a game for kids to help reduce energy. I wonder if he rolled it out nationally as an education device?