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Helping Duquesne Light Company serve the low income market by facilitating multifamily passive house projects

Background

It is well known in the world of energy efficiency that it is particularly challenging to achieve energy and demand savings in the low income residential sector. Like many utilities, Duquesne Light Company offered a program focused on serving low income multifamily properties. After the winning bidder of the implementation contract abruptly withdrew from the contract, Duquesne Light turned to MCR to help implement the program internally.

It was clear from early discussions that there was growing interest within the region for Passive House designs and certification. Conversations with developers and other stakeholders revealed that the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) had adopted policies that awarded extra points in the selection process to projects that were Passive House certified. Additionally, PHFA had also required developers to seek out utility incentives and include those incentives when submitting the individual requests.

While there appeared to be a big opportunity in implementing Passive House projects, there were several challenges to overcome, including:

  • There was no common definition of what “low income” means. The low income community operated under definitions based on percentages of area median income, while the regulated utilities used the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
  • The Passive House model was not an approved model in the Pennsylvania state Technical Reference Manual (TRM), which meant that utilities could not accept the modeling results as given.
  • Passive House models did not include any comparison to a “baseline” design. Energy efficiency savings in new construction projects were quantified by comparing the new building as designed and a comparable building built to be minimally code-compliant.
  • Developers already made significant investments in two modeling efforts: 1) the Passive House model to achieve certification and 2) a sample-based, apartment-by-apartment set of models used to demonstrate code compliance. While the latter models included a comparison to code baseline, they do not include common areas; so the use of these models to quantify savings would leave significant savings on the table.

With this background and the goal of making the Passive House program a success, Duquesne Light relied on MCR to shepherd these projects through its existing Act 129 programs.

Solution

MCR began by working with both low income housing advocates and the utility’s independent evaluator to learn more about the background of Passive House design, certification, and its use within the state. MCR also worked with the statewide independent evaluator to determine whether Passive House models could be accepted by the Public Utility Commission (Commission). Having identified the challenges discussed above, MCR arranged for a meeting of representatives from the PHFA, Commission, and the regulated utilities to work on driving a common understanding of the issues and possible solutions.

Following this meeting, MCR developed an interim measure protocol to calculate savings by comparing the Passive House model to a separate whole-building baseline model. While this approach did not eliminate the need for multiple building models, it allowed developers to earn incentives and utilities to claim savings. These incentives and savings would be based on a comparison of the low energy use captured in the Passive House models with a baseline design modeled in an ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1 Appendix G-compliant software package.

Results

With this new approach, MCR worked with an interested developer who provided the necessary information and performed the modeling work. Most new construction projects within Duquesne Light’s commercial and industrial portfolio only considered the energy efficiency savings derived from lighting upgrades; by using our approach, MCR was able to derive savings and incentives from the whole project. In fact, 63% of the project’s savings were achieved due to the modeling effort (as show below).

The process of bringing these savings to fruition, from first encountering a Passive House submission to recording the savings, was not a short one. In fact, conversations with the developer began nearly two years before the project was completed. While a part of this duration reflected the realities of construction timelines, it also represented a sustained effort to find a way to fully incorporate the project within the utility’s program.

Over the course of two years, MCR engaged audiences well beyond traditional energy efficiency stakeholders, fostered intra-agency cooperation, and achieved significant savings in this hard-to-reach market.