Approaching energy efficiency as a step to local economic transformation, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance (GCEA) has worked to reduce energy consumption in the Greater Cincinnati, Ohio, and northern Kentucky regions by encouraging homeowners, commercial property owners, and nonprofit organizations to undertake energy efficiency improvements. Using $17 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, GCEA paired educational outreach strategies with innovative financing to help customers invest in energy upgrades and achieve the associated comfort, health, financial, and environmental benefits.
Prior to program launch, GCEA found that residents and businesses in the Greater Cincinnati area knew little about energy efficiency and how it impacted their daily lives and operations. The program engaged homeowners, community leaders, and contractors to build awareness about the benefits of energy efficiency and create a framework for a sustainable energy upgrade market.
GCEA offered two distinct programs: the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® (HPwES) Program for residences and the Better Buildings Performance Program for commercial property owners. As part of the residential program, GCEA used marketing, education, customer service, and loans to encourage energy upgrades, with a decreasing emphasis on incentives over the course of the program. GCEA also promoted building upgrades to nonprofit organizations across the region.
GCEA trained, supported, and mentored contractors to work directly with homeowners, in addition to developing the Building Performance Training Center at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, which allowed contractors to continue their building science education. By communicating the value of energy efficiency services to communities across the region, GCEA was able to make investment into energy efficiency part of the local economic development marketplace. Read more in the GCEA final report.
(July 2010 to June 2014)
GCEA drove demand for energy efficiency upgrades through a focus on educating residents and contractors, as well as lowering market barriers associated with energy efficiency improvements.
- Residential Program Design: GCEA’s HPwES program offered home energy assessments at a reduced rate. GCEA also leveraged local partnerships with Kentucky Home Performance, a nearby state program, to provide quality assurance services and with the City of Forest Park, Ohio, to provide homeowners with insulation and air-sealing incentives. Throughout the assessment and upgrade process, an energy advisor addressed homeowner concerns and provided information about energy efficiency topics.
- Marketing and Outreach: To educate residents about the benefits of energy upgrades, GCEA created a website with information about energy efficiency and program contractors. The program also conducted door-to-door canvassing to more than 15,000 homes in partnership with AmeriCorps; attended community events; held contests; and educated the public at schools, churches, libraries, and many other community spaces. In summer 2012, GCEA started an ambassador program at local fairs and farmers markets to sign homeowners up for energy assessments.
- Financing: Participating homeowners had access to loans through the GC-HELP financing program, which offered a 10-year unsecured loan of up to $20,000 with a 6.99% interest rate. For nonprofits, the program established the Building Communities Loan Fund to offer loans between $5,000 and $50,000 for two to five years with interest rates at 3-5%.
- Workforce Development: GCEA lowered one of the barriers to entry for contractors by reducing upfront equipment costs through its equipment lease program. Through the program, contractors could lease a complete suite of home performance equipment, repaying the cost of the equipment over 12 months with no interest, but a 2% administrative fee. At the end of the lease, the contractor had the option to purchase the equipment for $1. A tuition assistance program helped contractors become Building Performance Institute-certified through a partnership with Cincinnati State Technical and Community College by offering approved contractors a 50% discount on the cost of home performance-related classes, with up to six months to repay the balance. Staff conducted a variety of outreach and business meetings with contractors. GCEA also developed marketing materials that contractors could easily access through an online portal.
- Commercial Program Design: GCEA established the Better Buildings Performance Program to specifically target nonprofit organizations, which received incentives of 15% of the energy upgrade costs. GCEA partnered with the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority to develop the GC-PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program, which helps commercial building owners finance energy efficiency improvements through a voluntary property tax bill assessment. PACE allowed businesses to reinvest their energy savings in their operations. In addition, GCEA offered assistance with assessments, contracting, financing, and project monitoring throughout the project process.
GCEA found that engaging and supporting contractors helped them to ramp up their efforts and better communicate energy efficiency benefits to customers. Other lessons learned include the following:
- Offer sales training to all staff of a contractor firm. Sales training helped the contractors to understand and better communicate the benefits of energy efficiency to homeowners. Providing training to additional employees, rather than just the owner, helped ensure that anyone who works directly with customers knew how to promote the benefits of energy efficiency.
- Incorporate technology into home performance. As demand for home performance services grows, bring new technologies into energy efficiency work to increase project efficiency. GCEA helped contractors streamline energy assessment data collection and analysis by offering tablet computers through the program’s equipment lease program to upload daily and track potential homeowner responses, decreasing the turnaround time for messaging and data processing.
- Work with contractors in the field. Some contractors’ hesitation to use new technologies, such as tablet computers, resulted in issues with meeting some of the program’s administrative requirements. GCEA worked with contractors in the field to demonstrate the benefits of new technologies, rather than explaining the advantages in abstract terms.
- Find the “sweet spot” with pricing. The price for home energy assessments should be low enough that the assessments are accessible to homeowners but high enough that they do not complete low-cost assessments simply out of curiosity with no intention of going forward with upgrades. As the program decreased this incentive over time, GCEA found that the lower home energy assessment incentives actually resulted in increased conversion rates. However, homeowners in the region were not ready to pay the full market cost for a home energy assessment, so some incentive was still needed.
GCEA has worked to further develop its financing programs and strengthen its role in the community, as it continues to promote energy upgrades in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond. Moving forward, GCEA will expand its service offerings to include:
- An expanded service area that includes the Greater Cincinnati area counties of Butler, Warren, and Clermont.
- A contractor loan program to replace the tuition assistance and equipment lease programs. The Contractor Education Loan Program will reduce upfront costs for contractors taking courses related to home performance. Through a loan, GCEA will purchase equipment for contractors, who will have six months to repay the funds.
- A home performance contracting service that will conduct home energy assessments and serve as the project manager for home energy upgrades. The service will leverage the existing contractor base to perform installations of all home energy upgrades.
- A new option to its GC-HELP loan program that allows homeowners to finance “improvement-specific” projects (e.g., emergency heating, ventilation, and air conditioning replacements) without requiring a full home energy assessment.
- Expansion of PACE financing throughout Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, as well as working with the State of Ohio to support PACE financing throughout the state in a more cost-effective way.
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