In a state where energy costs are low and the home performance workforce had not been established, Nebraska's two largest cities—Omaha and Lincoln—took on the challenge of promoting whole home energy upgrades to homeowners, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Using $10 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, the reEnergize program established infrastructure needed to support energy upgrades over the long term.
Developing and refining the program design in stages allowed for improvement and adjustment along the way. The program identified three major areas in the residential energy efficiency market that needed improvement: a skilled workforce, customer access to affordable financing, and homeowner awareness.
The reEnergize program focused on encouraging residents to perform the most cost-effective whole home energy upgrades. The initial program design focused on “start zones” in Omaha and Lincoln, chosen for the areas’ older building stock and potential for energy upgrades. Identifying a start zone with similar home types allowed for one contracting company to purchase upgrade materials in bulk and take advantage of economies of scale. The program set a target project cost of $6,500 for each home to achieve 25% energy savings.
Initially, reEnergize covered any upgrade costs beyond an initial $3,500 that homeowners would pay out of pocket. Homeowners expressed interest in being able to choose their own contractor and having more flexibility in the energy efficiency improvements they installed. For instance, air conditioners and heat pump systems are not typically the most cost-effective improvement for the area, but some homeowners wanted to use incentives to upgrade that equipment. After receiving this feedback and additional stakeholder input, reEnergize refined its program model to offer incentives to all upgrade projects, with higher incentives available for the most cost-effective solutions and a requirement that upgrades achieve at least 15% energy savings. Read more in the reEnergize final report.
The reEnergize program encouraged residential and commercial energy upgrades through outreach, advising, and incentives.
- Residential Program Design: Initially, homeowners had to follow 10 steps to complete a home energy upgrade; this was later simplified to three steps. To facilitate cost-effective upgrades for all income levels, reEnergize created two paths: the market rate path for moderate- to high-income homeowners, and the low- to moderate-income path. Homeowners on both paths would sign up online and choose an assessment professional. If the homeowner also selected a contractor to conduct upgrades during the enrollment phase, the contractor could access their assessment results on reEnergize's tracking database and enter a cost estimate for the homeowner to review. If the homeowner didn't choose a contractor during enrollment, participating contractors would contact the homeowner directly to offer bids on the project. After the upgrade was completed, reEnergize conducted a quality assurance review, and the contractor could invoice reEnergize for the incentive amount, reducing the customers’ cost. Program navigators walked homeowners through the assessment process, contractor selection, and quality assurance check, and answered program questions through a hotline and email.
- Marketing and Outreach: Like other program aspects, reEnergize's outreach efforts were adjusted as the program learned more about its market. Initially, reenergize attended community events, placed advertising in neighborhood publications, and hosted orientations. Contractors were also given yard signs to increase program awareness and visibility. Eventually, the program launched an “energy thief” media campaign to create a sense of urgency around losing energy and money in the home through radio spots, print media, social media, and website advertising trigged by certain search terms. A series of “What to Expect” videos provided information about participating the program.
- Financing: The reEnergize Program had initially intended to create a loan loss reserve to support financing products for homeowners. Financing partners including the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority had concerns over the smaller size of the loans, the short-term nature of the program, and uncertainty in the financial markets, so reEnergize hired a financing consultant to identify other options. The program eventually bought down the interest rate and offered a GEO-Smart Loan, a GE Capital product managed by the Electric and Gas Industries of America.
- Workforce Development: The reEnergize program partnered with the Metropolitan Community College, which developed a training facility for weatherization and efficiency. To grow its participating contractor list, reEnergize invited heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors to perform upgrades and recruit homeowners who needed a new furnace or air conditioning to participate in the program with a whole-home upgrade. Participating contractors also completed a DOE Weatherization Crew Chief training.
- Commercial Program Design: At the start of the reEnergize program, commercial energy efficiency was a more established market due to new building standards and efficiency certifications, so commercial efforts focused on conducting outreach to commercial building owners. The program’s assessment and implementation advisors provided guidance on energy upgrades for smaller companies and nonprofits. After an initial site visit with facility managers and occupant interviews, the assessment advisor would generate a list of potential energy conservation measures and a report describing the building and its systems. During a follow-up visit, the advisor would take more detailed measurements and suggest deeper upgrades for the organization to undertake. An implementation advisor would help the organization choose the best way to complete upgrades, outline a sustainability action plan, solicit requests for proposals from contractors, prepare the bidding papers, and help secure financing and other incentives (e.g., utility lighting retrofit incentives, rooftop unit controller incentives).
The reEnergize program realized it needed to refine its program design, and homeowners needed to be educated about home energy upgrades. Other lessons learned include the following:
- Simplify the sign-up process. To simplify the enrollment stage, program staff compressed the sign-up form into two pages, excluded non-essential questions, and replaced the half-hour, in-person orientation with a six-minute instructional video that customers could watch online.
- Track program progress and homeowner data. The reEnergize program maintained the MegaTool, a centralized database to store and report on participant statistics and supply data to the technical and marketing teams including contact information, building characteristics, healthy homes review results, and pre- and post-upgrade energy data.
- Empower contractors to be sales representatives. As the workforce grew, reEnergize helped contractors start marketing on their own by providing yard signs, T-shirts, pamphlets, and mass mailers. Contractors responded by attending neighborhood meetings, participating in community functions, and canvassing door-to-door, which led to an increase in program interest and completed upgrades.
- Increase conversion rates with upfront investments. The program attributed its 87% completion rate from assessment to upgrade to the fact that homeowners were required to pay a portion of the upgrade cost before completing the assessment or upgrade to show their commitment. Low- to moderate-income path participants were required to pay a $100 fee, and market-rate participants’ fee was $350. The fee was refunded after upgrades were completed.
The reEnergize program worked to grow the energy efficiency market in Omaha and Lincoln. Following are some ways the region will build upon this progress:
- As the reEnergize program wrapped up, program staff and contractors and evaluators discussed lessons learned and future strategies. Four workforce members took leadership roles in the energy efficiency market progress reEnergize had started by creating the nonprofit Nebraska Home Performance Guild to continue providing an organizational body for these contractors.
- The City of Omaha is expected to adopt International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 2012, which requires infiltration testing for new construction and is expected to create opportunities for qualified home improvement contractors. The city’s Planning Department currently maintains the energy efficiency equipment purchased by the reEnergize program and intends to make it available to continue developing the market for evaluations and updates.
PRESENTATIONS & STORIES
- "Community Partners reEnergize Industry in Nebraska"
- "reEnergize: Buildings Energy Smart Communities" (May 20, 2011)
- "Better Buildings Grantees: Green Zones November" (November 9, 2010)