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Better data, metrics, and communication on building insulation efficiency will yield large reductions in CO2 emissions.


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Summary

Improving commercial and residential building insulation is a powerful way to reduce CO2 emissions using existing technologies, while work proceeds to develop and commercialize new low- and zero-carbon energy generation and storage technologies.

One of the most important things MIT and its alumni can do to help implement MIT’s Climate Action Plan is to aid in the rigorous research, improved metrics, and effective communications about existing insulation technologies needed to realize this opportunity.

Residential and commercial buildings accounted for 39% of U.S. energy consumption in 2008, and 38% of total US CO2 emissions. By 2014, buildings’ share of US energy consumption had grown to 41%. Heating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) is the largest component of total energy consumption for residential and commercial buildings, at 32% and 39% of energy use respectively. (US DoE 2008, US EIA 2015.)

Increasing building insulation efficiency will significantly reduce CO2 emissions in the near-term, providing immediate benefits as we continue to pursue low- and zero-carbon technologies. More efficient buildings use less total energy and require less storage, enabling other clean energy solutions to become attainable at lower cost.

Given economic incentives to optimize building efficiency, why hasn’t this happened yet? Data on insulation haven’t kept up with changes in materials and installation. The standard metric, R-value, insufficiently captures the complexities of performance in real-world applications. The market does not have clear, compelling, up-to-date information to drive decision-making.

MIT alumni are uniquely positioned to address these needs: data, metrics, and communication. TEAM INSULATION proposes that MIT alumni work with MIT to: (1) Garner updated data on efficiency of current insulation technologies; (2) Quantify economic and environmental impacts; (3) Develop improved metrics and policy recommendations; (4) Communicate findings and recommendations.

 


What actions do you propose?

MIT’s Climate Action Plan calls for targeted, strategic mitigation and adaption solutions and communication of those solutions via MIT’s extensive networks.  We propose an immediate opportunity for MIT alumni to help advance the Climate Action Plan by aiding in rigorous research and communications about existing building insulation technologies, building on the large body of theoretical and experimental research on this subject.

The problem we seek to address is that comparative insulation material performance when installed is poorly correlated with current insulation efficacy ratings. Tests for insulation efficiency are generally performed in labs, rather than real-world situations.  Insulation efficiency metrics are oversimplified, unidimensional, and do not incorporate full understanding of the thermal performance of installed insulation in varied weather conditions. With better data and metrics, and effective communication about the comparative performance of existing insulation technologies, the market will drive efficiency gains.

MIT alumni are ideally positioned to lead in this work.  The MIT community has the scientific expertise and credibility to generate the required data, build consensus around solutions, and be heard by consumers, industry leaders, and policy makers.  The result will be a shift in marketplace behavior that will yield large and positive economic and environmental benefits in the near term.  This shift in behavior can have an immediate benefit in terms of reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, even while new technologies for energy generation and storage come online. 

Specifically, TEAM INSULATION proposes MIT alumni aid in the following areas, working closely with MIT.

  1. Conduct rigorous research on building insulation applications.  MIT scientists – both alumni and current faculty and students – are uniquely positioned to conduct rigorous, unbiased scientific analysis of real-world applications of existing insulating technologies in varied weather conditions.  Comparative insulation material performance is poorly correlated with current insulation efficacy ratings when installed. For instance, measurements do not include free convection within the material being tested. Horizontally applied loose-fill thermal insulation (e.g., in attic applications) can exhibit free convection with upward heat flow. This phenomenon is observed in cold weather when the temperature difference across the insulation is large, as is well understood by the building science community. A re-examination of the question of free convection insulation materials and applications can be done using the ASTM Test Method C1373 or by studying the material properties such as airflow permeability of current insulation and applying existing correlations. Either way, the impact of convection can be established by combining insulation performance with weather data that are readily available. By aiding in this research, in collaboration with MIT faculty and students, MIT alumni will ensure that robust, credible data is available to inform both policymaking and market behavior.
  2. Quantify economic and environmental impacts of existing insulation technologies. Building on the research above, quantify and compare the economic and environmental impacts associated with different insulation technologies, incorporating weather data from different US climate zones and accounting for projected weather changes associated with climate change. This impact assessment also should take account of embodied energy as part of the net energy return. Based on this comparative analysis, quantify the potential economic and environmental savings associated with various scenarios that improve building insulation. This work will require collaboration among research scientists, industry leaders, economists, and meteorologists – all well represented within the MIT community.
  3. Build Consensus on Improved Metrics and Policy Recommendations. MIT’s alumni body includes prominent scientists, industry leaders, and policy makers whose leadership is necessary to strengthen insulation efficiency metrics, so that they better capture the performance of insulation technologies in varied climate zones. MIT alumni should also work to develop and recommend policy options that incorporate the improved data and metrics, with a goal of increasing the accuracy and transparency of information about insulation performance.  MIT and its alumni body include leaders in the multi-stakeholder consensus-building field whose involvement will ensure that solid recommendations about metrics and policy can be adopted.
  4. Develop and Implement Strategic Communications Plan. MIT alumni should work with MIT faculty, staff, and students to develop and implement a strategic communications plan that ensures that market decisions will be informed by accurate, transparent, and credible information about efficiency performance. The communications plan should include all stakeholders in the insulation supply chain, including, but not limited to, residential consumers, building owners and developers, insulation manufacturers, distributors, and installers, architects, and public policy and regulatory bodies.

 

Improving the efficiency of building insulation is a powerful, as of yet under-realized, opportunity in the fight to reduce CO2 emissions. This is achievable now, with existing technologies. The problem is that the market does not have clear, credible, accurate, or up-to-date information about the comparative performance of insulation in real-world applications, especially in varied weather conditions. The MIT Community has the expertise and credibility not only to do the rigorous science that is necessary, but also to be heard by key constituencies. By aiding in this work, MIT alumni will contribute to reduced CO2 emissions in the near term, ease the burden on power grid generation and energy storage systems until new and more efficient technologies come online, and open up opportunities to engage diverse stakeholder across the economy in climate solutions.