In a region where energy efficiency is a relatively new concept, the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA) joined with a consortium of 13 cities across eight states and one territory to build a framework for energy efficiency programs that could be replicated and implemented across the Southeast. Because each city took a unique approach to developing and administering its local efficiency program, SEEA was able to analyze and assess a number of different approaches.
Using $20 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Neighborhood program, the 13 SEEA programs relied on partnerships with established community organizations and leaders to address barriers such as access to financing, workforce development opportunities, and access to utility bill data. SEEA also created the “Worthwhile Investments Save Energy” (WISE) brand many communities adopted for their outreach efforts.
Each of the 13 communities organized their programs with one of four main types of administrators: municipalities, nonprofits, third-party implementers, or utilities. By tapping into an exisiting utility program, for example, several communities were able to launch quickly, share marketing resources, and gain access to utility bill data. Many also captured homeowner interest by adding incentives onto the utility rebates already being offered.
Contractors were also key partners for the WISE programs. In addition to providing technical expertise, they served as sales representatives for the program by showing homeowners how undertaking upgrades would cut energy costs and make their homes more comfortable. To facilitate contractor outreach, several programs offered contractors sales training. For example, as part of the program in Huntsville, Alabama, contractors underwent training to learn how to market the benefits of energy efficiency to homeowners, and program demand increased. In Charlottesville, Virginia, Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) program administrators sought feedback from participating contractors to fine-tune and improve the program. Read more about the efforts of all 13 communities in the SEEA Southeast Consortium final report.
Following are just some of the approaches SEEA’s 13 community programs used to drive demand for home energy upgrades, provide contractor training, and offer financing and incentives:
- Residential Program Design: SEEA programs in Atlanta; Decatur, Georgia; Huntsville, Alabama; and Nashville, Tennessee, implemented successful utility partnerships, in which homeowners could apply for initial upgrade rebates through their utility, and the programs would provide an additional rebate for upgrades that achieved more than 15% energy savings. In Charleston, South Carolina, an energy advocate would guide homeowners through the upgrade process, including helping them choose a contractor.
- Marketing and Outreach: Many programs began with traditional marketing channels, such as signage, radio, and television, but found these were not always cost-effective strategies to increase demand. Programs found that direct, personal, and grassroots approaches engaged and better educated their target audiences, since most homeowners in the Southeast had little energy efficiency awareness. For example, in New Orleans, Louisiana, NOLA WISE found the highest quality leads emerged through innovative Homeowner Showcase events, where a satisfied homeowner would host an open house for interested prospects and the contractor who completed the work would explain the benefits of the upgrades and make the sale.
- Financing: To help lower the upfront costs of energy assessments and upgrades, programs experimented with different rebate structures. LEAP in Charlottesville, Virginia, provided rebates to cover 20% of the upgrade costs, ranging from $500 to a maximum of $2,000. In addition, the program offered a PowerSaver loan and offered interest rates as low as 0%. Jacksonville, Florida, worked with local financing partners to buy down its loan interest rates to 0% as well.
- Workforce Development: The Charleston, South Carolina, program and its partners developed training for veterans, underemployed, and displaced workers to become Building Performance Institute-certified contractors. Nexus Energy Center, the program implementer for Huntsville, Alabama, used a U.S. Department of Labor grant to fund training—including sales training—and continuing education for its contractors. Nexus also partnered with Drake State Technical College to provide Renewable Energy Institute training for veterans.
- Commercial Program Design: Carrboro, North Carolina, established the Carrboro WISE Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund to help the town support businesses and provide a sustainable financing mechanism for commercial upgrades.
During the course of the grant period, several programs underwent program design changes based on feedback from their partners or target audiences. Lessons learned included the following:
- Team up with an existing utility program. Programs that had access to existing utility programs and could usher homeowners into an existing, streamlined process received more interest in their incentives.
- Leverage existing personnel and resources. Cities that used third-party, for-profit program implementers found the overhead costs too high to be sustainable. In contrast, municipally run programs were able to keep overhead costs low in part by leveraging existing city resources, such as marketing, finance, and legal departments.
- Establish partnerships that define roles and responsibilities. The Nashville, Tennessee, program partnered with the Nashville Energy Service, TVA EnergyRight Solutions, and third-party program implementer Conservation Services Group. The contracts made with each partner clearly defined their roles, but the tight restrictions created a barrier for the city to achieve its goals. By creating clear deliverables and allowing roles and responsibilities to overlap where necessary, partnerships were more successful.
- Leverage trusted messengers for more impact. Expensive advertising campaigns didn’t achieve the impact that a local or neighborhood-specific champion for energy efficiency did. Trusted nonprofit organizations, community leaders, and contractors tapped into their existing networks to promote the new energy upgrade programs.
- Cater messaging to local homeowners’ interests. Huntsville, Alabama, didn’t initially use messaging that sparked demand for home energy upgrade incentives. By testing various messages, the program found the most successful ones focused on comfort, health, and safety, rather than energy and cost savings.
- Invest in your workforce through training. Partnerships with technical colleges, such as Nexus Energy Center’s collaboration with Drake State Technical College in Alabama, created sustainable career pipelines and assured there will be certified energy contractors available, which is especially important in areas where energy efficiency is a newly developing market.
- Assemble a team of experts. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, found several key staff members are necessary for a successful program: a program manager to oversee the big picture; a marketing manager to plan outreach campaigns; an energy efficiency coordinator to answer questions and manage data collection; and a contractor liaison to conduct quality assurance checks and training.
Some partnerships with utilities, nonprofits, and financing partners grew into long-term relationships, and the lessons learned from each program will help advise future energy efficiency efforts in the Southeast. Following are just some examples of the future of efficiency programs in the region:
- Atlanta discontinued its residential rebate incentive program, but will launch a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program for eligible properties. The previous program helped inform decisions on the PACE program and will provide considerations for future efforts.
- Carrboro, North Carolina, will continue offering its revolving loan fund for commercial energy upgrades.
- Charleston, South Carolina’s program will continue to use the Charleston WISE program branding and provide homeowners with direct installs of energy-saving measures. The program will continue to offer commercial energy assessments, project management, and energy modeling.
- LEAP in Charlottesville, Virginia, will screen homeowners and connect them to contractors delivering Home Energy Check-Ups, a Dominion Power program that includes direct install measures and energy evaluations. Homeowners will be directed to LEAP’s Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® (HPwES) program to complete upgrades.
- In Huntsville, Alabama WISE will continue providing home energy upgrade services as a HPwES Sponsor. The program will collect annual fees and lead fees from contractors benefitting from the program network.
- Nashville is continuing its partnership with an organization that runs its one-stop website for homeowners, including information on an ongoing energy upgrade loan program.
- New Orleans is engaging in several pilot efforts focused on loan products, a customer hotline, and a school energy kit. The city is engaged with Entergy New Orleans’ Energy Smart Program.
- "Energy Efficiency Upgrades: Benefiting Homeowners and the Environment"
- "NOLA Wise Helps Spur Statewide Energy Efficiency Program"
- "Northern Virginia Residents Improve Their Homes' Energy With A Funding Boost"
- "Strategic Financing Partnerships Help Jacksonville Program Take Loans From Buy-Down to Uptake"