Berkeley Gets Creative with Energy-Efficiency Rebates

There are three things I like about this story: 1) Berkeley's innovative approach to energy-efficiency rebates. They operate on a tiered scale related to percentage reduction in whole-home energy use, rather than a single appliance-based flat rate; 2) The ME2 program puts federal stimulus money directly in the hands of Berkeley homeowners, at up to $5,000 at a time; and 3) A small, isolated program like Berkeley's ME2 is all fine and good, but the fact that PG&E is getting in on the holistic energy-efficiency rebate act is better. The utility is using Berkeley's program as a pilot, and plans to roll out a similar program statewide this fall. That means efficient homes could one day become the rule across California, and not the Berkeley exception.

"Thinking Holistically About Energy Efficiency"

By Nate Seltenrich

In all their enormity, federal stimulus dollars have a way of feeling a bit immaterial to our daily lives. We may understand, at least conceptually, where that $787 billion went. We may even know of projects in our own neighborhoods. Yet rarely does this trickle down into our living rooms, kitchens, or bathrooms. However, in the case of a new federally funded Berkeley program geared toward whole-home energy efficiency, stimulus dollars will soon be put to work in all those places, plus heating ducts, attics, and basements.

A little more than a million dollars in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds from the Department of Energy allowed Berkeley to launch its Money for Energy Efficiency program in early July. The program is geared toward providing property owners with rebates for work that improves energy efficiency. About $600,000 will go directly to single-family, multi-family, non-residential, and mixed-use property owners in Berkeley. The remainder is set aside for administrative costs, said project manager Dan Lambert.

Berkeley wasn't the only local city to receive the money. Every large American community was eligible, but Oakland, San Francisco, and Richmond have opted to invest a sizeable chunk in capital projects for municipal facilities, said Neil DeSnoo, manager of Berkeley's Office of Energy and Sustainable Development. Berkeley, meanwhile, was itching to launch a community-based energy efficiency program, having previously developed a performance-based rebate plan as part of its citywide climate action plan. All it needed was the money.

Beyond representing an uncommonly concrete application of stimulus dollars, the program is novel in its approach to energy efficiency. The program hinges upon whole-home and not single-appliance performance, and tiered rebate amounts for single-family homes are tied to reductions in energy use as measured by before-and-after audits. A whole industry is percolating around holistic building performance, DeSnoo said, and Berkeley is getting in on the ground floor.

"There are vendors and professionals and academics who have provided a foundation for this new approach," DeSnoo said. "By putting the funding and incentives behind it, we're tapping into that expertise." Beyond the benefit to homeowners, DeSnoo hopes to see the program spark the creation of new jobs and firms.

So far, despite minimal marketing, response to the program has been considerable. The city didn't do much more than mail an announcement to registered property owners, but within two weeks of the program's launch in early July, it had received 493 applications covering 582 dwelling units. The number of applications has since climbed to well over 600. Lambert, who provides direct customer service to program participants, says he's been impressed, if not surprised. "Berkeley people are into it," he said. "They're just waiting for stuff like this."

Granted, only a select few of those hundreds of applicants will ever see any federal money. That's because the single-family residential portion of the program was allotted a mere $200,000, including money to cover energy audits at $200 a pop. With a max rebate per household of $5,000 (which can cover up to 75 percent of the total cost; homeowners have to kick in the rest), roughly forty applicants are eligible. Of the nearly 500 who applied during the first two weeks, 41 were chosen via lottery. The rest were randomly assigned spots on a waiting list. Any funds freed by rebates totaling less than $5,000 will be returned to the pool.

While it's safe to say that most of the more than 550 people stuck on the waiting list will be out of luck, not all hope is lost. As luck would have it, PG&E is in the process of rolling out a similar performance-based energy rebate program that relies in part on Berkeley's program as a test bed. Using funds from the California Public Utilities Commission, the utility is prepared to offer up to $3,500 to Berkeley residents who achieve whole-home energy usage reductions between 20 and 40 percent using pre-approved contractors. Participation in the project is not a prerequisite, but it's not a disqualifier, either. This fall, PG&E hopes to roll out the rebates statewide, said spokesperson Katie Romans. San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, and Sonoma also are participating in the pilot program, but thus far only Berkeley has gotten its act together.

Much of the credit for the single-family program frenzy goes not to the city but to local firms such as Richmond's Advanced Home Energy and San Francisco's Recurve, which both heavily marketed their services as soon as they learned they'd been registered as approved vendors. Both produced mailers, fliers, and even lawn signs announcing the program and advertising their services. Advanced Home Energy has heard from nearly 400 people regarding the program over the last couple months, reported one employee, and has performed about ten home-energy audits.

Holden Hume was one of the lucky few awarded funds via Berkeley's lottery, and had an audit performed two weeks ago. He said he's somewhat skeptical that the rebates will pan out as promised, but would love to put some of the money toward new windows for his century-old home. "I was sort of surprised to see real, on-the-ground, tangible access to stimulus funds," he said. "It's stuff that you see on the news, not in real life."