Conversation

Energy efficiency as a great problem solver

Connecting people to real energy savings and a clean energy economy

Adapting for Energy
Savings

 

In September of 2020, Danielle Hauck, Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment, sat down virtually for a conversation with Marie Donahue, Sustainability Storyteller with CERTs.

Hauck manages the organization’s Energy Advisor Service, which helps Home Energy Squad and home energy audit customers implement recommendations from their home energy visits. Hauck describes how she and her team have adapted the energy efficiency services they offer in these challenging times, how residents can be proactive in preparing their homes for winter, and lessons learned from her career path in the clean energy sector.

 

Listen to the conversation or read it below.

Both the audio and write-up have been edited for length and clarity.

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I really focus on the communication we have with customers, from the beginning of their experience all the way to the end, to make sure that it's consistent and motivating and helping people be ready for action after their visit to make their home more energy efficient.

Danielle Hauck, Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment

Marie Donahue: I’m really excited to talk to you today about your path, your work, how you’ve been navigating these times. So, for some context for our listeners to start, could you share a bit about your role at the Center for Energy and Environment or CEE and what you and the organization work on?

Danielle Hauck: Totally. So, I am the Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment, and I work within the Residential Department, but generally CEE is helping people live in a clean energy economy. And within the Residential Energy Department, we spend a lot of time performing energy audits, and we deliver the Home Energy Squad program on behalf of Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy.

 

The Energy Advisor Service team I work on within the Residential Department picks up where that visit leaves off. So at the visit customers might receive recommendations for things like upgrading to a new heating system or insulating their attic or wall spaces. My team helps people complete those projects. And as a part of that, we might help them schedule work with an insulation contractor or review quotes or bids from contractors. We always make sure we're connecting customers to rebates from the utilities when they apply, and then if it's necessary or helpful, we can also connect to customers to low-interest financing options.

Additionally, I really focus on the communication we have with customers, from the beginning of their experience all the way to the end, to make sure that it's consistent and motivating and helping people be ready for action after their visit to make their home more energy efficient. And that the experience with CEE and the Home Energy Squad doesn't end when my coworkers leave their house at the end of the visit—that there's more potentially for a customer on their journey to an energy efficient home.

It became really clear to me that energy efficiency is a great problem solver. I think talking about it that way or having that be our go-to approach in terms of how we talk about energy efficiency or clean energy casts a really big tent, and a lot of people can find that message to be really appealing and inviting.

Danielle Hauck, Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment

Marie Donahue: Wonderful. I'm looking forward to digging a bit more into that process and how that has shifted in these times. But even a step back, what motivated you to work in energy efficiency and clean energy to begin with, how did you land in your role at CEE and get your start in the industry? I gather you've been with the organization for some time, but how has your path brought you to where you are now?

Danielle Hauck: So, I've worked for CEE—and we had merged with the organization, the Neighborhood Energy Connection—for about 10 years. I got my start actually in the Home Energy Squad program. I was one of the members of the Home Energy Squad going out to people's homes and installing things that help lower energy bills. So, LED or CFL, light bulbs, weather stripping, programmable thermostats, things like that. But what really motivated me is that through my coursework and through interests in the space, it became really clear to me that energy efficiency is a great problem solver. I think talking about it that way or having that be our go-to approach in terms of how we talk about energy efficiency or clean energy casts a really big tent, and a lot of people can find that message to be really appealing and inviting.

 

And so examples of that could be things like ice dams. People don't want ice dams at all. They're damaging and destructive, and they are dangerous. They can certainly cause really expensive-to-repair damage to a home. And the solution to that, the real solution to that is making sure your attic is properly insulated and air sealed.

Now, most people aren't motivated by attic insulation, but they're motivated by having their ice dams go away, and we can help connect those dots for people—and doing that I think is really exciting. It's nice to do that in a way that helps people live the high quality life that they want while using less energy. And most of the time, these problem-solving energy efficiency solutions improve the quality of their life, not just maintain it. So, that's my interest. That's what motivates me. Energy efficiency is an amazing problem solver, especially on the house level, which is what we focus on.

We can help connect those dots for people… It's nice to do that in a way that helps people live the high quality life that they want while using less energy. And most of the time, these problem-solving, energy efficiency solutions improve the quality of their life, not just maintain it.

Danielle Hauck, Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment

Marie Donahue: Once you were doing the work with Home Energy Squad and this project-focused work in the home, how did you transition into the role that you have now, and what does that look like? Especially that communications piece and having you talk more about that, helping folks who might be starting their careers in this space think about how the trajectory of their position might evolve.

Danielle Hauck: For sure. So when I was involved in the Home Energy Squad, it was almost exclusively focused on installing some of these basic energy saving items during the visit. Now it's expanded. It involves an audit and some much more technical aspects of the house, but I learned that I enjoyed and was somewhat better at the communication end of it than I was at the installation end of the visit. And so that skillset just kind of evolved naturally. And I spent more and more time over the course of my time on the Home Energy Squad, talking to customers about what to do next and how to complete their next projects. And now my job is really focused on those next steps and helping them complete that, whether it's the attic insulation or the heating system upgrade. About a year into working on the Home Energy Squad there was a really excellent rebate that was being under-utilized, offered by Xcel Energy. I got the opportunity to focus on helping people through that rebate program and that grew somewhat organically, as well. And so essentially what that led to was the first iterations of the Energy Advisor Service, which is now the program that I manage. And we have energy advisors who do that one-on-one coaching with customers, but that communication piece and focusing on that skillset was really what led to one progression at a time.

 

Marie Donahue: I appreciate that as someone in the energy space with interests in its technical nuances, but who also really values that relational piece, too. So it's great to hear about opportunities like that in the work you're doing and how it's been important for connecting energy efficiency work in someone's home and what that means to them and their lives. It's good to know there are people in roles like yours that can help folks through that process. So, thanks. And it's neat as well that your role could evolve in that way over time.

Danielle Hauck: It makes sense that the clean energy space needs that kind of communication skillset. I think, I mean on a very practical level, most people don't insulate an attic more than once or twice in their lifetime. By that, I mean, hiring a contractor to do that. So, it makes total sense that a customer wanting to do a project, for whatever reason—ice dams, high bills, discomfort, etc.—is going to have questions about how to do that or who to work with. And that's the niche that the energy advisor service fills. We want people to feel confident about those projects. We want them to feel confident in the solutions they can provide. And a lot of that is gained by explaining the technical aspects of it, but in a way and using language that motivates them. So, those are the dots we're connecting, which is really fun and also means that no conversation is the same, which is also really, really fun for us.

It makes total sense that a customer wanting to do a project, for whatever reason—ice dams, high bills, discomfort, etc.—is going to have questions about how to do that or who to work with. And that's the niche that the energy advisor service fills. We want people to feel confident about those projects.

Danielle Hauck, Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment

Marie Donahue: To build on that, in terms of conversations and connecting with folks in their homes and the residential focus of your work, and recognizing that we're all having to find these new ways of operating, how have you and your team adapted to those changes? Both in the Home Energy Squad portion of it, but also in your work in the follow-up to that as well. Are there new programs or ways of working that you've undertaken as a result of shifting so much of our work in the last six months or so?

Danielle Hauck: So in response to COVID, we've done some dramatic pivots within the residential department. We're a staff of about 60 and almost 40 people were working pre-COVID in the field every day in multiple people's homes. So we stopped doing in-home visits early in March. Before the end of April, we were offering virtual energy audits. This was a total team effort. Everyone got together and brainstormed how to do this in a way that was helpful to the customer and provided a high quality service.

And most of it's done now virtually. Video communication and the virtual visits have turned out to be really awesome. We get to dive deeply into topics that customers are really concerned about. They're faster typically than an in-home visit and after, well, I should say at the end of a virtual visit, our staff evaluate what remaining questions the customer has, what remaining needs they have. And we can schedule a now shorter and more focused in-home visit, during which we're taking all sorts of precautions to keep our staff safe, as well as the homeowner safe. So that was our major pivot. I'm able to do the bulk of my work from home and remotely as are the other energy advisors. But we still have the same pipeline of communication happening now with virtual energy visit and customers, as we did with audit customers from the traditional in-home model.

 

Marie Donahue: Could you walk us through what that Home Energy Squad virtual visit looks like. We're right now sitting or potentially standing at desks, but I imagine the virtual home energy audit is probably more interactive. So, how does that look? How did you and your team approach how to instruct homeowners to do that work or walk them through that process? I'm fascinated to have that process described to those of us who aren't familiar or haven't maybe done that in ourselves.

Danielle Hauck: Sure. Yes, it is much more interactive. We recommend customers use an iPad or a smartphone, as their device. Because it's easy to walk around and flip cameras forward and backward. But a lot of the success of the visit is based off of a brief survey that we have the customer fill out ahead of time. There are questions on that related to their concerns—what do they want to talk about? Then we have them describe the energy efficient conditions of their homes. We ask them to tell us if they can, about the age of their water heater and heating system. We ask them, if they know if their attic is insulated or their walls are insulated. And that starts to paint for us a picture of how the home is working ahead of the visit.

Then together we walk with the customer around their home, if they're able and interested, to answer any remaining questions. And then from that we can make recommendations. Those answers run the gamut. Some people aren't able or interested in going down to their basement to check on the details of their water heater. And that's totally okay. Often by the end of the visit we can make enough reasonable deduction based on other things to have a good hunch at what that equipment might be like. And so most of it is a conversation as we get those questions answered.

 

There are generally two staff on the call, one person largely doing the face-to-face communication. And the other one is essentially the recorder of information, and the benefit of that is at the end of the visit or thereafter, we provide you with a summary report, just like we would in our in-home visit. By having the two staff people you're getting that report really quickly. And that report very much serves as the connection between the visit and the Energy Advisor Service, which is the team I'm on.

It explains: Here's what we found in your home, here's what we want you to think about doing—to fix that or address that or improve that—and here's how we can help. We can schedule an installation quote, we can connect you to a rebate, or some combination thereof. So that's kind of the process from beginning to end with a virtual visit.

Marie Donahue: Thanks for walking through that. It sounds as though you've adapted well in these times and that the technology we have available to us has made that possible, in addition to that really important team effort that you are doing behind the scenes to make that process go smoothly. Before we move on, have there been any other ways that CEE has had to adapt its work, on your team or others in these times?

Danielle Hauck: Yes. So the other departments have certainly made similar adaptations. We have other folks who go out into the field either for our research or business consulting services, and they've started working remotely, too. I can't speak to the specifics of those, but I do know that in all of the pivots and adjustments what we really wanted to keep in the forefront was the health and safety of our staff and the people we are working with. So, when we are together, everyone is masked and keeping social distances, but we're all learning that we can accomplish a lot over Zoom or the like. We can learn a lot about homes or buildings with the help of video devices. So, that's been the big pivot for us.

 

Marie Donahue: To ask about the residential customers, are you working primarily with homeowners or are there examples of renters or others that you're working with? Could you dig into who you're working with most closely?

Danielle Hauck: Absolutely. So, we primarily get connected to utility customers through the energy audit and Home Energy Squad programs from CenterPoint and Xcel. So renters are certainly welcomed to participate in those programs. So, yes, we are definitely working with renters, landlords, homeowners, and the like. Within the Energy Advisor Service, we tend to work more with homeowners than renters just because they're the folks investing in the properties. But the visit and the learning and the education bit is open to anyone who has an eligible utility account. So if you're a CenterPoint or Xcel customer, you're eligible to participate in the program.

Of course, we discover or learn early on if you're a renter, and there are definitely different recommendations and different things that we'll talk about with the renter versus a homeowner, so that they can get the most out of their one year lease of a space. We'll be focused on the Home Energy Squad, maybe scheduling that follow-up service and having them come back in and install a specific list of measures or, if there's any other quick energy saving behavior change things, we'll definitely focus on that with a customer, when they're the renter. And then, our report provides investment-level next steps that they can share with their landlord, if they're interested.

Marie Donahue: I appreciate that, recognizing the different ways that we as customers of utilities are probably looking at or approaching energy efficiency. We just talked about how you've adapted in recent months, but are your teams looking ahead to the fall and winter and preparing for how your process might adjust? Any advice that you are now giving to folks you're talking to in these times with COVID and then as we approach the winter months?

Danielle Hauck: Absolutely. So one of the resources we've spent a lot of time leveraging in the last year, even before COVID, is a new website CEE launch called the Home Energy Hub (more information here). What's great about this resource is that it has a lot of recommendations. It dives in depth into their benefits and their value. We specifically call out topics and actions that are relevant to renters. So, it's an easy place to navigate whether you're a homeowner or a renter.

And as we look ahead, we can use that website as a place to have "How to get ready for winter" messaging or "How to stay cool in the summer" messaging. That's shared through our Energy Advisor service and can be linked to in our report.

Then, the message we are using really regularly right now, is that we're in this beautiful pre-winter end-of-summer time period. We definitely see an increase in people calling us who have already had their Home Energy Squad visit, who had a recommendation like insulating their attic or walls. Now with winter approaching, they're ready to do that project. But the problem is, so is everyone else. Contractors get really busy. We spend a lot of time at the end of the summer through the end in the fall talking about how now—before it's 30 degrees below zero—now it's a great time to work with your contractor and get on their calendar, or at least get on their radar, so that when winter is actually here, your project can be completed in a timely way, and you'll get to spend this winter nice and warm and comfortable in your home. So that's a lot of what we're talking about now in this end-of-summer, early fall time with our customers. Don't wait until it's snowing because you're going to be waiting, and there will be tulips blooming by the time you get the work done. Although that's a very dramatic version.

We've also started to see virtual audit customers who are working with energy advisors completing projects or getting them scheduled. We're seeing that this new virtual visit is really working, we are still able to connect customers to real energy savings. That is really, really rewarding.

Danielle Hauck, Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment

Marie Donahue: Yeah it's good to be thinking ahead! What I'm hearing is that there are time frames on these projects and taking what we've learned in these times with COVID, it's good to understand the landscape and navigate changes thoughtfully. It seems there are lots of important considerations to be thinking ahead about. I'm curious what challenges, surprises, or bright spots you experienced in navigating all of these different ways of adapting. Are there any anecdotes or stories of engaging with a customer, or just things that you think you'll reflect back on these times in your work?

Danielle Hauck: The virtual visits have really afforded us an opportunity to have new conversations with our customers when we're in the home, there's this checklist of things we want to make sure we cover because they're the basis of an energy efficient home, but when we're virtual with the customer and remote like this, we've ended up diving really deeply into things that are their concerns. And we get to have really problem solving-oriented conversations around windows, for example, or why they're always getting ice dams in this one corner of their home, but none of the others. Being able to dive deeply on those topics and concerns for customers has been really fascinating. We've learned a lot from that, and we've also started to see virtual audit customers who are working with energy advisors completing projects or getting them scheduled.

We're seeing that this new virtual visit is really working, we are still able to connect customers to real energy savings. That is really, really rewarding. It helps us understand that this experiment of a virtual visit that we started in the spring is really working longterm for our customers. We've gotten feedback from customers saying, 'It was so fast and short, and I got all my questions answered. And now I know exactly what I need to do!' Getting feedback like that has been the major bright spot for us.

 

Marie Donahue: That's great to hear. I'm just reflecting on how all of us are spending more time in our homes and how essential that service is. Perhaps how much more aware many of us are to what our spaces are and needs are for energy. So I'm curious, has that come up in your conversations?

Danielle Hauck: Yeah, people are definitely starting to think about indoor air quality, for example, in a way that maybe they didn't before spending 24-hours a day at home. And there is an overlap in indoor air quality to energy efficiency. So, we get to have that conversation too. And that's another motivation behind taking action for customers that we're seeing as a result of COVID, specific to the advisors.

One of the interesting things that's kind of evolving with the virtual visit and during this era of COVID, is that we have customers after the visit who have learned about a new project or are motivated to complete a project. They're now concerned about inviting a bunch of contractors into their home and then ultimately picking one and having a crew there. Controlling for that exposure is a totally fair concern.

Because of our ongoing partnership with contractors that we had before COVID, we've been able to really confidently recommend contractors to help them move forward with their project, while also addressing the health and safety concerns of having people in their home. We've talked to contractors and asked them what their protocols are and what they're doing. All of that is to say that we have found ways to take the relationships we've had before COVID and to have used them to help customers complete projects in the era of COVID. And that's been really exciting, too.

The thing I think is super exciting about this is that in order to move to a true clean energy economy, everyone's gotta be onboard… All skillsets are going to be needed to move that needle forward.

Danielle Hauck, Customer Engagement Manager at the Center for Energy and Environment

Marie Donahue: I know we spoke a bit about your path. But another topic we've been discussing with folks in this space is about the future of clean energy jobs. Thinking about our economy and some of the economic implications of the past several months, recognizing clean energy could fill an important part of that recovery and that there are people looking to work in this space and supporting clean energy careers, do you have any advice or thoughts for folks looking to pursue work related to energy efficiency or work similar to what you are doing, now or in the future?

Danielle Hauck: That's a great question. The thing I think is super exciting about this is that in order to move to a true clean energy economy, everyone's gotta be onboard. Every sector, every industry, all the big movers and shakers, as well as people, because they're all going to have to care about that shift. And so that might sound like a lot and it might sound daunting and maybe impossible, but I think there's opportunity in the size of that task. To belabor that point a bit more, what I mean is all skillsets are going to be needed to move that needle forward.

I think that you can do a lot of things in the clean energy and efficiency spaces. And I think if you're interested in working in the clean energy industry, I think an important first step or early step is to evaluate what your strengths are and whether it's communication or data analysis or construction and improved building performance, research, that sort of thing. Know what those skillsets are and know that skillset is needed here. Seek out individual companies or organizations that are needing those. There's a huge way to connect your individual strengths to the needs of shifting an economy in that way.

 

The other thing on a really super practical level I would say is that there's a ton of on-the-job training in this field, especially as it relates to contractors and trades work. I think that's super unique actually, it's becoming increasingly rare that you get that level of on-the-job training. If that's the direction you want to go, you are in the right spot. There are lots of people who want to hire hardworking, dedicated young people, especially if they are willing to go through on-the-job training. I think this opens up the sector to such endless possibilities of who can be here and who can work here and who can be a part of that shift. That is something I'm really excited to see, where that end of our space goes.

Marie Donahue: Wonderful. I appreciate those thoughts and share that hope for the future. And I'm curious to wrap up in the last few minutes we have here, if there are other things that we didn't cover that you wanted to make sure to touch on. Is there anything on the horizon?

Danielle Hauck: The things that I'm focused on this year are kind of in the weeds, backend stuff to make sure that our virtual visits, as they continue to become a dominant part of our customer experience—and by that, I mean more and more people are getting them prior to an in-home visit or working with an energy advisor—that all of our communication is perfectly tailored to that experience in the order of events for a customer. So going back to that communication and consistency thing, now that the virtual visits are up and running and running quite smoothly and successfully, we're kind of going back and dotting I's and crossing T's, to make sure that we're providing all the best follow-up possible after that visit. Because it's a little different than the in-home experience. We want to tailor that as much as we can.

That's my focus, as well as making sure that as we monitor people's ability to do work and make what can be sizable investments in their home that we're working with our contractors who are partners of ours to make sure that they've got a calendar that works for them and that we are supporting our partners as much as we can through this and trying to creatively find ways to engage new customers through COVID. It's interesting. We have launched this new virtual visits service, it's great. We've talked about the successes there, but we recently did a good old letter mailing campaign and that was really successful. So I suspect some envelope stuffing is in my future. It's still a good way to engage with customers. Something like a letter—something concrete and tangible—to balance out the virtual customer experience is really important. So we're working on striking that balance over the fall and winter.

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