With a sluggish economy and more than half of its residents living in poverty, the City of Camden, New Jersey, saw a new energy efficiency program as a good opportunity to generate energy and financial savings for the community. Through Camden POWER (Program Offering Widespread Energy Recovery), the city embraced a whole-neighborhood approach to making homes and businesses more energy-efficient. Beyond helping residents and businesses save energy and money on utility bills, the program sought to improve property values and promote neighborhood stabilization by simultaneously addressing health, safety, and building facade repairs.
Using $5 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, Camden POWER partnered with local agencies to deliver residential and commercial energy efficiency services to the community, with the goal of serving as a model for other low-income communities.
The city established critical partnerships with local organizations to increase its capacity to manage and support delivery of the residential and commercial energy upgrades. To achieve the broad goal of uplifting the city’s neighborhoods, Camden POWER took a whole-neighborhood approach. In addition to energy upgrades, Camden POWER incorporated health, safety, and facade improvements in its efforts to improve residents’ quality of life and neighborhood conditions.
The program offered significant financial incentives and promoted word-of-mouth marketing from early adopters to encourage homeowners and business owners to install energy upgrades. Forgivable loans and rebates for residents and low-interest loans and direct grants for businesses made financing energy upgrades more affordable. Camden POWER found that having initial participants promote the program directly to fellow community members was the most effective marketing strategy. Read more in the Camden POWER final report.
Camden POWER used a whole-neighborhood approach to achieve its multifaceted goals of energy reduction and neighborhood stabilization.
- Residential Program Design: A whole-neighborhood upgrade approach helped improve Camden communities by improving property values and residents’ quality of life. To incentivize homeowners to undertake energy upgrades, Camden POWER offered residents health, safety, and facade home repairs, such as stabilizing loose railings or steps and installing smoke detectors. Program administrators and other staff helped homeowners fill out applications and move through the upgrade process from assessment through installation in order to help them achieve the minimum required energy savings, which was at least a 25% estimated reduction in total home energy use.
- Marketing and Outreach: Camden POWER initially employed a hands-on approach to marketing and outreach, partnering with neighborhood organizations and local churches to complete door-to-door canvassing about the program and its benefits. Because the city has a sizeable Spanish-speaking population, the program website and materials were made available in both English and Spanish. Despite these marketing efforts, program-organized community meetings were not well attended. The program altered its strategy to focus on sending direct mail to prior recipients of other local government programs, who would be more familiar with program processes. Initial participants completed upgrades and served as word-of-mouth advertising for the program.
- Financing: Participating homeowners were able to finance up to $18,600 in energy upgrades and other home repairs through forgivable loans and rebates available through New Jersey’s Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® program. Residents qualified for a loan if they owned and lived in their home for at least a year; were current on their property taxes; and met certain income requirements. If homeowners continued to live in the home for five years post-upgrades, the entire loan amount was forgiven. Any business or commercial property in Camden was eligible to participate in the commercial program, which offered low-interest loans through New Jersey Community Capital and direct grants subsidized under the state’s Clean Energy Direct Install Program.
- Workforce Development: The program worked with the Energy Coordinating Agency, a Building Performance Institute certification training institution, to provide classes, lab work, and field study on weatherization tactics, building system relationships, and insulation techniques to both contractors and residents.
- Commercial Program Design: Any local business, commercial property owner, or nonprofit organization could participate in the commercial program, which offered significant financial incentives to lower the capital costs of improvements. Businesses first received a free energy assessment, then the program helped them develop a scope of work and project budget, as well as connect them with available incentives and financing to complete their energy upgrades. Through the Clean Energy Direct Install Program, businesses could receive up to $50,000 in energy upgrade incentives, along with up to $25,000 in facade improvement from the Camden Urban Enterprise Zone, and access to low-interest commercial loans.
Through its residential and commercial energy efficiency efforts, Camden POWER learned important lessons applicable to other programs focused on low-income communities, including:
- Promote early adopters. Camden POWER initially conducted door-to-door canvassing and used other traditional forms of media but had little success generating interest in its residential program. That changed when the program began directly reaching out to community members who had previously participated in local government programs. Because these residents were already familiar with the process of other programs, they viewed Camden POWER and its services with less skepticism. Once these early adopters participated in the program, their firsthand experience led to word-of-mouth promotion that was much more effective at reaching other homeowners.
- Allow time to establish partnerships. The City of Camden partnered with a number of local organizations to help support residential and commercial program delivery but found that it took 18 months to identify, solicit, and cement these partnerships, which subsequently affected the timeline for uptake of energy upgrades within the community.
- Effectively communicate loan terms. Through interest rate buy-down, the commercial program was able to offer businesses low-interest loans, at a maximum rate of 2%. Communicating about the interest rate buy-down led to interest by private capital, which ultimately reduced the rates of loan default for program participants.
- Target home improvements simultaneously. From the outset, the program sought to address basic health, safety, and facade improvements, as well as energy upgrades. This broader approach contributed to greater overall neighborhood and quality-of-life improvements.
Camden POWER served as a model energy efficiency program for other low-income communities, and the city is working to identify new funding sources, in addition to the revenue it will generate as a result of loan repayment, to keep its efforts going. The city is looking to partner with other government sectors with similar community goals for these initiatives.