While the historic downtowns of cities throughout Maryland are known for their charming mix of quaint shops and picturesque homes, many of the older buildings are not energy efficient. Spurred by these historic commercial centers to launch a statewide energy efficiency campaign, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) used $20 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's Better Buildings Neighborhood Program to launch the Be SMART (Saving Money and Resources Today) program to help preserve and improve downtown areas and make single-family, multifamily, and commercial energy upgrades affordable in 15 communities in Maryland.
Be SMART grew Maryland’s energy efficiency sector by partnering with contractors and local nonprofits to train a “green workforce” and increase community energy efficiency awareness. With the success of Be SMART’s efforts in the 15 initial communities, the program expanded its affordable energy efficiency loans and services statewide.
Initially designed as an energy efficiency financing program for single-family, multifamily, and small commercial customers, the Be SMART program expanded to additional approaches for promoting energy upgrades. In addition to providing low-interest loans for energy upgrades, Be SMART offered residential rebates on home assessments and energy-efficient products, supported community education, funded energy upgrade projects in schools, helped farmers increase efficiency in their operations, and provided training classes and tuition reimbursement for contractors.
The program connected with residents using volunteer-based “green teams” in the original 15 counties combined with broader outreach efforts, including program promotion by contractors and advertisements on television and in movie theaters. Read more about the program’s service offerings, outreach efforts, and challenges in the Be SMART final report.
The Be SMART program was designed to be a holistic, community-based approach to target single-family households, multifamily rental properties, and commercial properties for energy upgrades.
- Residential Program Design: The program’s flagship residential product was its Be SMART Home loan, which offered homeowners low-interest financing for both single-measure and whole-home efficiency upgrades. For multifamily buildings, Be SMART also managed a separate revolving loan fund to provide affordable financing for individual upgrades or energy-saving projects that were part of a larger rehabilitation project. Additionally, Be SMART offered rebates to homeowners who installed energy-efficient products; donated funding to upgrade state-owned, foreclosed homes; and partnered with Habitat for Humanity to reach low-income residents.
- Marketing and Outreach: Volunteer groups of residents from Be SMART’s original 15 target counties, called “green teams,” worked to increase awareness of the program in their communities. The program’s statewide marketing effort coupled town hall meetings, community fairs, and door-to-door canvassing with social media campaigns and traditional print, radio, and television advertising, such as bill inserts, billboards, and commercials in movie theaters and on community cable stations. Contractor promotion of the program was also one of the most successful tools for recruiting customers.
- Financing: Participating residents were eligible for rebates on home energy assessments and the installation of energy-efficient appliances and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Be SMART offered loan programs for homeowners, multifamily buildings, and small business owners. Residents were eligible for up to $15,000 in financing with a 6.99% interest rate for single-measure upgrades and a 4.99% interest rate for comprehensive home upgrades. The Be SMART multifamily revolving loan fund provided low-interest loans designed to be paid back within two to three years. The Be SMART Business program targeted “mom-and-pop” shops, especially those in historic districts, with unsecured, low-interest loans of up to $50,000 and partially secured loans of more than $50,000 backed by collateral.
- Workforce Development: Be SMART worked to develop a statewide green workforce by providing International Energy Conservation Code training seminars and certification for contractors, inspectors, and government officials; offering tuition reimbursement to contractors who completed weatherization, energy efficiency, or Building Performance Institute training; and holding contractor recognition events with awards for top performers to recognize contractors working in the home performance sector.
- Commercial Program Design: The Be SMART business loan program incentivized business owners, developers, and property owners to invest in energy improvements. Be SMART also provided funding to four local nonprofits working in the energy efficiency field, supported energy improvements at public schools, and worked with the Maryland Energy Administration to improve energy efficiency in the agricultural sector on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The Be SMART program evolved from its original model in response to changes in the energy efficiency market and challenges encountered with its approaches. Lessons learned include the following:
- Consider in-house financing. Be SMART originally planned to work with private lenders to develop a financing program. However, the program found that directly lending the available funding instead of working with more risk-averse, expensive lending partners gave the program the flexibility to adjust policies or processes in response to changing market conditions, allowed the program to fill gaps in the market, and kept overhead costs low. DHCD also had the resources and ability to remain flexible and adjust program models as needed.
- Cast a wide marketing net. The program found that results from the green teams were inconsistent and that teams of volunteers could be difficult to manage. Be SMART expanded beyond its volunteer-based network and original 15 communities and increased upgrades by broadening its reach and having contractors and local community organizations promote the program.
- Standardize reporting processes. Between the residential, multifamily, and commercial programs, discrepancies arose due to the variety of ways contractors determined energy savings and the different types of energy modeling software used. Be SMART worked to eliminate these discrepancies by developing a standard methodology for estimating energy savings and working with state building inspectors to review energy assessments for reasonableness.
- Develop a network of qualified contractors. Because contractor promotion of the program was one of Be SMART’s most useful outreach efforts, Be SMART equipped contractors with additional marketing tools and customer service skills; conducted focus groups with contractors; and held forum sessions on topics such as sales approaches and best practices.
- Reward hard work. Be SMART held a recognition event for contractors and energy efficiency partners to boost morale and motivate them to stay engaged with the program. The event included awards for the highest volume of upgrade work, the greatest number of HVAC and home performance upgrades, the highest assessment-to-upgrade conversion rate, and the “Accuracy Award” for best rebate paperwork submission.
- Be flexible. While the Be SMART Business program originally targeted small business owners, the additional compliance measures required by the Davis-Bacon Act when accepting federal funding raised costs and made most projects infeasible. To increase uptake of its loan funds, Be SMART expanded its program to other commercial sectors to find businesses that were able to work with the extra regulations and were located in areas with contractors who were familiar with Davis-Bacon Act compliance.
Be SMART plans to use revenue from its lending activity to continue offering its residential and multifamily programs and explore ways to support energy upgrades in Maryland:
- The Be SMART team renewed its evaluation of energy program software systems and anticipates selecting and implementing a new system to allow more detailed measurement and verification of energy savings from residential upgrades.
- The program is exploring the potential to re-launch the Be SMART Business program to meet small- to medium-sized businesses’ energy upgrade needs.
- Be SMART is working with DHCD’s Office of Communications and Marketing to identify more cost-effective marketing and outreach efforts for promoting the residential lending program.