America Saves: Three Years in Review

By Jeana Wiser posted 10-13-2016 11:57


The Preservation Green Lab and Main Street America have spent the last three years touring the country to meet and work with small business communities, electric and gas utilities, energy efficiency contractors, and local energy efficiency and small business champions. All of this work and energy (pun intended!) has been dedicated to the advancement of small business and small commercial energy efficiency facilitated through our program, America Saves.

We in the preservation movement already know that older buildings are inherently better for the environment when compared with similar new buildings. Preservation Green Lab’s very first report, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, found that, in nearly every scenario, the reuse of an existing building is more environmentally friendly than its demolition—even when the new building that replaces it is “green.” Therefore, when the Green Lab was presented with the opportunity to build on existing energy efficiency work and demonstrate the efficiency potential of older small commercial buildings, we enthusiastically accepted the R&D grant award from the Department of Energy. We used the grant to build a program that accelerates energy efficiency actions and adoption in older commercial districts across the country, targeting the small commercial (less than 50,000 square feet) sector.


Downtown Fond du Lac [Wisconsin] Partnership energy efficiency business outreach | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Commonly referred to as “hard to reach,” small commercial buildings and small businesses have long mystified the energy efficiency marketplace. Typically, energy efficiency works best at scale—i.e., very big buildings or large portfolios of buildings, like fast food chains. Our challenge over the last three years has been to crack the code of the highly diverse small commercial sector by leveraging national networks of Main Street programs, business improvement districts, and sustainability districts.

Before America Saves became an official program of the Preservation Green Lab, we had already been working alongside the New Buildings Institute at the intersection of older, smaller commercial buildings and energy efficiency for three years. That research was aimed at uncovering opportunities for deep energy retrofits—typically those that yield greater than 50 percent energy or cost savings—in older, smaller commercial buildings. It included a national survey of more than 700 small commercial buildings in 10 cities. The final report, Saving Energy, Money, and Jobs: Realizing the Energy Efficiency Potential of Small Buildings, was the true launching point for America Saves.

America Saves: What We Learned

America Saves officially came to a close on September 30, 2016, and we have learned a lot from the program. As we all know, small business owners are stretched incredibly thin, which is why we prioritized reducing the time required to understand energy efficiency choices. When we offered a well-defined path with minimal barriers, we realized major success in moving small business and building owners from the audit or assessment stage to taking action.

We were able to leverage local energy efficiency champions to facilitate the reduction of cost (in terms of both time and money) of delivering energy efficiency opportunities to small businesses. Identifying a well-connected local leader to serve as the interface between business owners and energy programs was essential to achieving participation in energy efficiency measures and retrofits. Custom, person-to-person communication regarding available incentives and recommended strategies proved to be more successful than, for example, electronic or postal mail delivery of generic information. Simply scheduling in-person meetings between owners and utility representatives removed a significant barrier to action—certainly common in the hard-to-reach” market—illustrating the power of relationships and connections.

America Saves was also able to drastically increase participation in utility-based energy efficiency programs by simplifying the decision-making process. For example, collecting, evaluating, and disseminating cost and savings data—broken down by building component and system (e.g., HVAC or lighting)—made it easier for business owners to assess improvement trade-offs. We also developed a unique system for transferring utility data in large batches for analysis, diagnostics, benchmarking, and predictive modeling. This tool, FirstView, found an average potential energy and monetary savings of 20 percent for businesses participating in America Saves.

Of course, we could not have carried out this work alone. Our team of industry leader partners—including National Renewable Energy Laboratory, EnergyRM, SeventhWave, Building Energy, and Lendlease—was critical to our success. Most importantly, the participation of Main Street America allowed us to directly tap into a network of more than 1,000 local Main Street, economic development, and downtown development programs.

Main Street Georgetown, Texas, America Saves visit | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Looking to the Future

The Preservation Green Lab will continue to monitor and track developments, new projects, and other related research in the small commercial energy efficiency marketplace and continue to engage in some local demonstration projects. We remain enthusiastic and look forward to hearing about any developments and breakthroughs related to sustainability, energy efficiency, and small businesses in your own communities!

Remember: we now have more than six years of accumulated information, knowledge, and resources, so please don’t hesitate to reach out directly to jwiser[at] with any questions or comments.

Jeana Wiser is the senior manager of resilient communities at the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.

#AmericaSaves #Sustainability #PreservationGreenLab #Energy

Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.