Measuring Adoption of Deep Retrofits

How long will it take for deep energy retrofits to catch on? Since Rocky Mountain Institute’s mission is to accelerate the adoption of deep building retrofits that can deliver up to 50 percent (and often more) in energy savings, we ponder this question daily. And being RMI, we decided to measure this rate of adoption.

We used a measurement and verification process called “diffusion of innovations,” first developed by Everett Rogers to analyze farming technology adoption in the 1950s. According to Rogers, the complexity of innovation tends to elongate its diffusion. We can also see from various historical examples that, as time passes, diffusion is happening faster and faster.

Electricity, for example, took more than 50 years to spread across the United States, even though the need for it is unquestioned today. This is largely due to the immense investment in infrastructure required and the fact that people did not readily realize the impact of such an innovation. Refrigerators, piggybacking on electricity, took 45 years to diffuse widely.

The cell phone, on the other hand, has spread very quickly because of the small investment needed to purchase the technology and the obvious advantage it brings to its user. In just under 20 years, the cell phone has become important to more than 80 percent of the population.

So what do we see when we begin to look at the innovation of the deep energy retrofit?

Thus far, our results show that deep retrofits are in what Rogers calls the “innovation stage” of diffusion. Currently about 3.8 million square feet of commercial space is undergoing a deep energy retrofit, according to RMI estimates, based primarily on information from the National Buildings Institute. Once a billion square feet or so undergoes the deep process, deep retrofits will have moved from the innovation stage to Rogers’ “early adopter” stage of diffusion, a phase RMI’s RetroFit Initiative is targeting.

“We know we have a long way to go to get to our goal, but it was useful to understand the scope of the problem and have a very concrete target to know when we’ve achieved a critical level of market penetration,“ comments RMI Principal Architect Victor Olgyay.

Getting to a Tipping Point

Successful deep energy retrofits, like the retrofit of the Empire State Building, that save nearly 40 percent in energy use have shown ways the deep retrofit process can be replicable to similary buildings across the country.

RMI is currently working with the General Services Administration (GSA) to retrofit the Byron Rogers federal office building to become one of the most energy-efficient offices in the country. The GSA is the nation’s largest property owner and intends to replicate deep energy retrofit practices on multiple buildings. Working with building owners who want to retrofit entire portfolios of buildings is one way to accelerate the adoption of deep energy retrofits.

Part of moving on to the next phase of diffusion involves facing constraints and advantages that determine the rate of diffusion, according to Rogers. Rogers claims accelerated adoption occurs when an innovation has:

  • Relative advantage
  • Compatibility with existing values and practices
  • Simplicity and ease of use
  • Trialability
  • Observable results

For widespread accelerated diffusion of deep retrofits, a few things need to happen, including:

  • Building owners need to understand how deep energy retrofits can create savings on energy costs, improve corporate image, and provide healthier interiors while lowering impact on the environment. (Relative advantage, compatibility with existing values.)
  • Energy service companies and design teams need to understand and apply an integrative design process to building retrofits to more visible examples. (Ease of use, trialability, and observable results.)

RMI will continue to monitor national indicators, but also work to catalyze and design profitable deep energy retrofits, showing that deep retrofits make sense financially. Current efforts like the General Services Administration’s ESCO Challenge and RMI’s Portfolio Challenge seek new territory and look to show that deep retrofits can be realized with a wide range of partnering organizations. Existing buildings have also recently become a major focus for organizations such as the US Green Building Council, which has been responsible for accelerating the adoption of LEED- certified buildings throughout the nation.

To learn more about the deep retrofit process, visit the RetroFit Depot.