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University Park, Maryland


Location: University Park, Maryland
Seed Funding: $1.4 million
Target Building Type: Residential
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Transforming Cities and Towns: Energy Efficiency From a Mayor's Perspective March 30, 2011

Better Buildings Helps University Park, Maryland, STEP-UP to the Challenge of Improving Homes

More than half of the U.S. population lives in villages, towns, or small cities with fewer than 25,000 people. University Park, Maryland, with 2,138 citizens, is one such town. Faced with aging housing stock and a lack of resources to help residents with the upfront costs of energy efficiency upgrades, this half-square-mile town didn't let its size get in the way of creating a program to provide many of its homes with energy efficiency upgrades.

The town is using $1.4 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Better Buildings Neighborhood Program to create the Small Town Energy Program for University Park, better known as STEP-UP. University Park's approach can serve as a model to other small towns and cities across the country.

Financing: STEP-UP Steps in to Help Families
Driving Demand: Small Town Value Drives Demand

STEP-UP Steps in to Help Families

To increase awareness and accessibility of information about energy efficiency upgrades, STEP-UP has hired an energy coach to serve as a trusted, go-to expert for the community. The coach works one-on-one with residents who participate in the program, ensuring that the many, complicated steps in obtaining a home energy upgrade and accessing available incentives go as smoothly as possible.

STEP-UP is making information about existing financial incentives from federal tax credits, local utilities, and state programs clear and accessible. In addition, through STEP-UP, University Park residents are eligible for a rebate of up to $400 for many types of energy efficiency improvements, including insulation and air sealing, upgrading or replacing air conditioners, boilers, furnaces, heat pumps, hot water heaters, exterior windows and skylights, exterior doors and roofs, and refrigerators.

These incentives, combined with rebates from existing programs such as the Maryland Energy Administration, which are accessible through the STEP-UP website and from the energy coach, make financing energy efficiency improvements less daunting to University Park residents. For example, one program participant received the STEP-UP rebate, got a 35% cost reimbursement from a Maryland Energy Administration program, and secured a 15% rebate from Pepco, the local power utility, toward home insulation improvements. Following these changes, the entire family felt the difference. One of the children even remarked that he no longer needed blankets to guard against the drafts the home once had.

Small Town Value Drives Demand

University Park has used low cost social marketing methods—such as an insert in the local newsletter, postcards, lawn signs, and emails through area listservs—to market the program to residents. STEP-UP has also engaged local organizations such as civic associations, women's clubs, boys and girls clubs, churches, the Parent Teacher Association, and scouting programs. Building neighbor-to-neighbor relationships appeals to residents' sense of community, helping to overcome the inertia that can often prevent people from making changes when they don't have enough information or trust in the process.

For example, the STEP-UP community launch event in January 2011 drew 20% of the town's households—for a cost to the program of less than $1,000. Nearly 50% of attendees signed up to participate in STEP-UP. Since then, the program has reached what it considers a critical mass of "neighbor ambassadors," residents who have completed upgrades in their homes and are now helping sign up new residents with STEP-UP. The energy coach builds on this momentum by organizing community outreach events on relevant home energy topics.

At the project's website,, residents can find reports to the town council about the project's successes and challenges, as well as all forms used to participate in, work with, and obtain incentives from the program. In the coming months, other small towns interested in starting a similar program will be able to download a free, ready-to-use toolkit of templates, replicable best practices, and community case studies designed specifically for small towns.


Chuck Wilson

U.S. Department of Energy
Better Buildings Neighborhood Program