The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and its partners created Energy Impact Illinois (EI2) to promote home energy upgrades in single-family homes, multifamily housing units, and commercial buildings to help the region meet its 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan and longer term GO TO 2040 Strategic Plan.
EI2 enlisted the help of the Elevate Energy, a nonprofit that changed its name from CNT Energy in 2014, to administer the program and coordinate with additional marketing and financing experts. The program kicked off with an award-winning advertising campaign, but when this effort didn’t create a spike in upgrades, the program went back to basics with grassroots house parties that proved successful. EI2 also promoted commercial and multifamily upgrades.
EI2 launched with a multi-tiered marketing approach featuring a major advertising campaign: “The Energy Bills” used two characters—Big Bill and Little Bill—to personify the benefits of energy efficiency. Although the campaign was successful in gaining earned media and increased website traffic, it failed to push homeowners to sign up for upgrades. EI2 realized the general awareness messaging about energy efficiency wasn’t sufficient, and homeowners needed a clear call to action and grassroots outreach to undertake upgrades.
EI2 took the opportunity to implement a new outreach model using house parties to walk homeowners through the rebate and energy upgrade process. A typical house party consisted of a field organizer introducing basic energy efficiency concepts followed by an energy professional walking through the home showing energy leaks using blower doors or thermal imaging cameras. Hosts received the energy assessment free of charge. Over the course of one year, 652 house parties brought more than 3,000 homeowners, neighbors, and friends together to learn about energy efficiency opportunities, while increasing demand for home energy assessments and upgrades. EI2 estimated more than 2,000 attendees signed up for assessments at the house parties, a conversion rate of 82% for house party attendance to assessment sign-up. More than 900 house party participants completed upgrades, making the conversion rate of assessment sign-ups to completed upgrades around 41%. Read more in the EI2 final report.
(July 2010 to September 2014)
In addition to the marketing tactics described above, EI2 maintained a skilled workforce to complete the work and provided financing options for home and building owners who undertook upgrades.
- Residential Program Design: The Energy Impact Illinois website was created as a one-stop shop with information about utility rebates, program financing, qualified contractors, and tools for starting the upgrade process, including the MyHomeEQ Tool to calculate a home’s energy consumption per square foot. In addition, the team supported a call center where customer service agents helped homeowners through the upgrade process.
- Marketing and Outreach: The EI2 team conducted an in-depth research and customer segmentation study including field surveys, homeowner interviews, and discussions with local leaders to identify its target audience and for The Energy Bills advertising and video campaign. It focused on middle- to high-income single-family homeowners and identified two target groups: progressive early adopters and cost-conscious homeowners. But upgrades did not begin to pick up until field organizers began educating homeowners directly through house parties that demonstrated where leaks in homes were wasting energy.
- Financing: EI2 offered financial incentives to single-family, multifamily, and commercial building owners. Through the Delta Residential Retrofit Program, owners of residential buildings with less than four units could benefit from rebate incentives and low-interest loans with terms up to seven years. EI2 also developed three residential financing pilots: an employer-assisted home upgrade program in which employees could receive up to $6,000 in incentives from EI2 and matching employer contributions; the Illinois Home Performance Rebate Program in the City of Rockford, Illinois, which provided multitier rebates depending on the level of energy efficiency achieved in the home; and the Multiunit Retrofit Improvement Loan Program pilot that used a revolving loan fund to finance equipment for existing rehabilitation projects. Multifamily building owners could also receive no-cost energy assessments and technical assistance as part of the Energy Savers program.
- Workforce Development: To build off an established model in the area, EI2 aligned its contractor requirements to meet Illinois Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® program criteria, which included Building Performance Institute (BPI) standards for energy evaluations and upgrades, BPI certification, and proof of experience. EI2’s workforce partners, the Center for New Horizons and Chicago Jobs Council, developed a list of training providers for EI2 to survey and get feedback on its program requirements and connected contractor companies to these training providers for access to a pool of skilled workers to hire. The team also hosted roundtables for participating contractors to provide updates on the program and to help them understand and complete program requirements.
- Commercial Program Design: Commercial building owners could access the Retrofit Gateway Services “Road Maps” tool to get a step-by-step plan for prioritizing energy savings opportunities and mapping out their energy upgrade process. EI2 also created a $9 million loan loss reserve to help building owners finance upgrades. The loans worked through a Managed Energy Services Agreement (MESA), which meant EI2’s financing partner, SCIenergy, assumed responsibility for the building owner’s energy expenses for up to 10 years. During this time, the building owner would pay its historical energy costs to SCIenergy, adjusted for rates, weather, and occupancy, and SCIenergy invested in energy efficiency upgrades, using the utility savings to recoup its investment. EI2 also developed a $1 million loan loss reserve exclusively available to nonprofit organizations.
By tracking its results over time, EI2 demonstrated which efforts created an impact and which needed to be reevaluated, making mid-stream adjustments as necessary. Lessons learned include the following:
- Don’t be afraid to make marketing adjustments midstream. When The Energy Bills campaign didn’t spur homeowners to complete upgrades, the program decided to shift course to grassroots outreach.
- Offer one-on-one support to homeowners. EI2 staff expected homeowners to use the tools and materials on the program’s website as a guide to the upgrade process but found that homeowners preferred visiting a website that provided a simple introduction to energy upgrade, while having the ability to have questions answered by a trained customer agent through a call center.
- Call upon local government, utility, and program partners to encourage commercial action. Similar to homeowners, commercial building owners benefitted from a trusted third party encouraging them to undertake and complete energy upgrades.
- Consider a pre-approval process for loans. The approval process for loans offered by EI2 was seen as a barrier by interested homeowners, but streamlining the paperwork could overcome it.
- Invest in the local workforce. In its pilot program in Rockford, EI2 found that providing benefits such as covering the cost of some contractor certifications helped the program recruit and retain a qualified workforce.
Many of the efforts that EI2 and its partners undertook to create demand, qualified workers, and financing options for residential and commercial upgrades will continue in some form in the future:
- Although it will no longer offer rebates to homeowners, the Delta Residential Retrofit Program will continue to provide loans via the loan loss reserve through November 2014. Throughout 2014, EI2 partners will continue to reinvest loan repayments into the reserve and will decide if the program can continue into 2015 based on the projected volume of funds.
- The multifamily Energy Savers program will also continue with Elevate Energy providing no-cost energy assessments to building owners. In addition, EI2 will continue to offer loans to multifamily building owners through those loan loss reserve funds.
- Elevate Energy staff will continue monitor the call center number and maintain the website; Elevate Energy community outreach manager will work with volunteers to host future house parties; and CNT Energy will continue to provide contractor qualification, coordination, and quality assurance.
Stories & Interviews
- "EI2 Insulation Helps Anxious Pooch Find Calm in the Storm"
- "Making an Impact on Energy Use in Illinois"
- "Energy Impact Illinois Learns That Parties Sell Upgrades"
- "CRIBB Communications" (January 2014)
- "Energy Savers: Overcoming Barriers in the Multifamily Sector" (July 11, 2012)
- "What’s Working in Residential Energy Efficiency Upgrade Programs: Promising Approaches and Lessons Learned" (May 20, 2011)