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The Link between Home Ownership and Energy Efficiency

Benjamin Freas — April 16, 2014

The world’s population, and how that population is housed, is undergoing a rapid transformation. Urbanization and its impact on sustainability have been well studied in recent years. Indeed, 70% of the world’s population may live in cities by the second half of the century, but will they rent or own – and how will that affect energy efficiency?

Home ownership rates, like urbanization, are undergoing broad changes. Unlike urbanization, the direction and magnitude of the changes in home ownership vary regionally. Nonetheless, the rate of home ownership is on a wild ride. In the United States, home ownership is at an 18-year low. Meanwhile, Germany, famed for its renting culture, is facing a property rush.

The ownership of a home should influence investment decisions in energy efficiency. Renters have little incentive to invest in lowering utility bills if the payback period is longer than the expected occupancy. Why would a renter install an LED light bulb that lasts for 20 years if he or she plans to move out in 2 years?  The value proposition of energy efficient investments is similarly poor for landlords.  For many improvements, such as better insulation and more efficient HVAC, the benefits are largely felt by tenants, but the cost is incurred by landlords.  In fact, data from the Energy Information Administration indicates that renters consume on average 33% more energy per square foot than homeowners do.  Home ownership has a profound impact on energy efficiency.

Household Energy Consumption, United States: 2009

Household Energy Consumption, United States: 2009

(Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

However, what about Germany? It is a country with a historically low ownership rate and a strong culture of renting, but it has been a beacon of innovation for home energy efficiency.  The first Passivhaus and the Passivhaus Institut are located in Germany, as is a house that generates enough electricity to meet its own needs and power a car.  Of course, ownership is only one factor.  Government regulation has played a large role in establishing Germany’s market for energy efficient homes.  In contrast, U.S. innovation in home energy efficiency is often driven by what homeowners want rather than what regulations dictate.  The Nest Learning Thermostat, for instance, was developed by Tony Fadell because he realized there was value in expanding the limited features of conventional thermostats.  As fewer Americans and more Germans buy houses, it will be interesting to see how dynamics in innovation shift. After all, property ownership does change your world view.

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