Bringing the clean industrial revolution to America’s underserved multifamily building sector

This blog was originally posted by Rocky Mountain Institute on May 6, 2019.

Oakland, CA (May 6, 2019) — Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) today announced a national partnership with the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the California Energy Commission (CEC) to catalyze the development of a speedy and scalable process for zero-carbon retrofits in the multifamily home sector through its REALIZE initiative. Supported by a $500,000 DOE Building America award and $7.2 million CEC Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) grant, the three-year collaboration spans across California, Minnesota and Massachusetts to develop pilot projects—totaling approximately 500,000 square feet—in multifamily buildings to demonstrate an industrialized approach to conducting zero-emissions retrofits.

In addition, RMI, DOE, CEC and other market facilitation actors, such as New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s RetrofitNY program, are working together to develop scaling mechanisms designed to mobilize and organize the supply chain and kickstart a market for integrated retrofit systems. Six pilots are slated for development in RetrofitNY’s program.

America’s 125 million residential units account for approximately 20 percent of the country’s total carbon emissions, but only roughly 12,500 of these units (0.01 percent) are operating at net zero energy, according to the Net Zero Energy Coalition’s 2017 inventory. Progress continues to be hindered in large part by the disaggregation of both supply and demand―today, every retrofit is a custom job, involving significant time, complexity and cost.

At the same time, nearly 50 million Americans are living at or below the federal poverty line, with many struggling to pay for their utilities versus other basic needs. While low-income families stand to benefit the most from high-performing buildings, they also face the greatest barriers in accessing them, spending up to 20 percent of their income on energy, compared to just 4 percent for the average US household.

“Millions of American families spend too much to heat and cool their homes,” said Eric Werling, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America program, “but homeowners have very few affordable options to fix high heating and cooling costs. DOE’s Building Technologies Office is tackling some of these challenges, and we are excited to collaborate with key stakeholders like RMI to address the largest energy savings opportunities in the building sector: existing homes.”

REALIZE is combining demand aggregation and supply chain coordination to deploy high-quality, prefabricated mass-scale retrofit packages that are easy to install and are financed through utility cost savings. The approach was inspired by an innovative market facilitator from Europe known as Energiesprong that has successfully organized over 100,000 units of affordable multifamily

retrofit demand. REALIZE is working with its partners to adapt the Energiesprong approach to the US market. Energiesprong is an official strategic partner on both the DOE and CEC efforts.

The DOE Building America research funding supports pilot projects to develop a cost-effective approach for retrofit solution implementation, and to provide the industry with a compelling case study for prefabricated retrofits that achieve net-zero ready status. Additional project team members include Passive House Institute US, Net Zero Energy Coalition, Re:Vision Architecture, The Levy Partnership, Staengl Engineering and CVM Engineers.

The CEC grant supports 300,000 square feet of demonstration projects for disadvantaged communities across the state while organizing the California manufacturing, energy services and contractor markets to provide zero-emissions retrofits at scale.

RMI and partners—including Association for Energy Affordability, University of California Davis, California Housing Partnership Corporation, City of San Francisco, Prospect Silicon Valley, Integral Group, David Baker Architecture and Stone Associates—are working together to streamline financing, permitting and installation to create turnkey, net-zero retrofit solutions in California.

“The Energy Commission’s investment in the REALIZE initiative highlights its commitment to provide opportunities for all California residents, including those in disadvantaged and low-income communities, to benefit from clean energy innovations that are helping the state meet its energy and greenhouse gas emission goals,” said Laurie ten Hope, deputy director of the CEC’s Research and Development Division.

REALIZE’s strategic set of activities include:

Demand Generation and Aggregation: Working with building owners to map out a plan to achieve cost-effective zero-over-time retrofits across their portfolios, while harnessing the power of group purchasing across portfolios to improve manufacturers’ product offerings and reduce pricing.

Product Development: Engaging market- and public-sector allies to bring factory-constructed building panels (including windows and doors) and integrated mechanical system packages (heating, cooling, hot water, ventilation, solar energy inverter and integrated system controls) to market in order to quickly and effectively retrofit and decarbonize buildings.

Project Design and Implementation: Facilitating projects by bringing together real estate owners and managers, project development and implementation companies, financiers, contractors and workers.

Streamlined Financing: Coordinating a range of standardized approaches and products that are suitable to a variety of building owner needs, we will collaborate with housing finance agencies, banks, community development finance institutions, and other financial organizations to enable more retrofits to be fit into mortgage and other energy and water project financing tools in the market.

Inclusive Economy: Partnering with the Emerald Cities Collaborative and local entities to recruit and provide capacity-building services to minority, veteran and women contractors, connecting them to project opportunities and labor, preparing them to take on bigger and more complex projects.

“RMI is on a mission to industrialize and scale zero-emissions retrofits by overcoming barriers and closing gaps in the marketplace,” said RMI Managing Director Jamie Mandel. “Inherent in our goal is a need to ensure that a significant portion of the economic activity benefits low- to moderate-income and minority communities.”

For more information on REALIZE, visit