Philadelphia, Nov. 21 -- Energy labels for homes could be coming to a home near you soon.

Four states – Alabama, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington – are involved in a three-year DOE-funded pilot program started in 2010 to develop and test energy rating labels for homes. The program wraps up in March 2014, with the results expected later in the year.

The four states are taking slightly different approaches, but the end goal is to have a standard set of energy metrics for consumers to use to compare houses in their areas. Massachusetts is participating in the federally funded program not just to develop a label, but also to move homeowners to invest in energy efficiency, especially retrofits, said Ian Finlayson, deputy director of Massachusetts Energy Efficiency Division, during a Greenbuild presentation.

Finlayson and the other presenters compared a home energy label to miles per gallon (MPG) label found on all new cars. “The MPG label has a lot of value to people … and it can change behavior,” said Chris Wagner, project manager for the National Association of State Energy Officials. “But we don’t have a simple metric like MPG in the housing industry.”

Massachusetts’s pilot program, called Home MPG, includes the house’s energy performance audit score and the average performance score for all audited houses in the region. “You are more apt to change if you know the scores are around you,” Finlayson noted.

The Massachusetts pilot includes eight cities and towns in the western part of the state that officials felt most closely resembled the average Massachusetts community as well as cities throughout the U.S. It also has utilities and other organizations as partners.

The state opted to add Home MPG to its Mass Save program, which offers free home energy assessments to residents. The Home MPG program also is offering rebates for insulation and upgraded HVAC equipment, and will help homeowners figure out what retrofits to make based on their homes’ scores. In addition, Massachusetts included in the pilot its existing HEAT Loan program that offers no-interest loans to help pay for energy retrofits.

To date, Massachusetts has produced 2,500 Home MPG scorecards, which have resulted in 832 retrofits, Finlayson said. The next step, he added, is to conduct training with Realtors so they understand the scorecards and use them in the sales process.

One attendee at the session suggested that a national energy label should be implemented, but the presenters said that the state level is the best place to drive policy (although they agreed all labels should have some standard data).

David Heslam, executive director of Earth Advantage in Portland, Ore., said that people don’t buy a car because of its MPG label, and consumers won’t buy or renovate a home just for what’s on an energy label. Nevertheless, 82 percent of residents surveyed in a multi-state study that included Oregon said they would like to see labels when they buy their next home.

A former green builder, Heslam noted during the Q&A time that the firms that develop software for multiple listing services (MLS) are including 10 fields for green attributes in new versions, so MLSs will have use of those green fields as they update their software.

Where Can Energy Label Programs Go Wrong?
Heslam said that states have to get buy-in from other energy programs run by the state, utilities, and non-profits. Also, integrating a new program into an old one has its challenges, but integration provides scale to get homeowner involvement quickly.

Likewise, Heslam noted that most homeowners who participate in energy programs are better educated and buy into the concept of energy programs.

Finally, the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in terms of energy labeling, the presenters said. Many countries, including most of the European Union, have been working with energy labels for eight to 10 years, said Finlayson.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Portland, OR.