In Santa Barbara County, California, the weather is so temperate that even the least energy-efficient homes can still feel comfortable year-round. To help residents see that energy upgrades can have benefits even in their climate, Santa Barbara County formed the Elective Municipal Programs to Optimize Water, Energy and Renewables (emPower) program. Supported by $2.4 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, the program aimed to make home upgrades affordable and appealing for Santa Barbara County residents through a combination of low-cost financing, comprehensive rebates, and expert energy advising.

With 40% of the county’s local contractor workforce underemployed at the launch of the program, emPower also focused its program design on workforce development and offered training opportunities for local contractors.

Defining Characteristics
Approaches Taken
Key Takeaways
What’s Next?
Additional Resources

Defining Characteristics

The emPower program was designed to address the lack of six key service areas in the local energy efficiency market: low-cost loans, residential rebates, local customer service, expert energy advising, workforce training, and education and outreach. To address these areas, emPower crafted a streamlined program that combined these services and aimed to eliminate market barriers for both homeowners and contractors.

The program targeted single-family homes in the county that were more than 25 years old and were considered good candidates for upgrades. Extensive personalized marketing and community education resulted in more than 450 leads for participating contractors and helped grow the county’s contractor pool. Those professionals now use the home performance principles the learned in their new construction and remodeling work. Read more in emPower’s final report.


(July 2010 to June 2014)

Approaches Taken

To stimulate Santa Barbara County’s market for home energy upgrades, emPower focused on financing, marketing campaigns, community outreach, and workforce development.

  • Program Design: To help homeowners overcome market barriers to completing energy upgrades, emPower offered affordable financing options, provided expert energy advice from an “energy coach,” identified potential rebates, and connected customers with participating contractors.
  • Marketing and Outreach: The program raised homeowner awareness of the benefits of better home performance through print, radio, and television advertisements; earned media; and more than 70 community events, including a home energy showcase and a home performance workshop and barbeque. In addition to these marketing and outreach activities, emPower made a point of providing personalized customer service. Several team members were available via phone, email, or in person to help homeowners navigate the various stages of the upgrade process.
  • Financing: In addition to partnering with the statewide Energy Upgrade California program to offer rebates of up $4,500 on home energy upgrades, emPower established a partnership between Santa Barbara County and CoastHills Federal Credit Union to offer customers accessible, unsecured loans at better terms and rates than are typically available. CoastHills offer $25,000 maximum for 15-year terms at 5.9%, which emPower backed by a loan loss reserve. With emPower’s financing, a comprehensive home energy upgrade that would usually cost the average homeowner $15,000 upfront could be financed with monthly payments of only $125, which homeowners could often justify once they realized the money they would save on energy costs.
  • Workforce Development: The more than 30 building performance and sales trainings emPower provided for local contractors helped increase the number of Building Performance Institute-certified workers in Santa Barbara County from five to nearly 40. These professionals were also able to share best practices and give feedback on program offerings through emPower’s Contractor Input Committee. Contractors also had access to a free energy tool lending library and ongoing mentorship provided by emPower’s energy coach.

Key Takeaways

Having a multifaceted program allowed emPower to gather feedback from homeowners, contractors, and the community. Some of the lessons emPower learned include:

  • Help customers through the upgrade process. Many customers said they were hesitant to take the first step toward an upgrade because they felt uncomfortable contacting contractors, so emPower raised appointed an energy coach to guide customers through the home upgrade process and provide a more personal entry to the program.
  • Offer incremental upgrades. To encourage deeper investments in energy efficiency, emPower partnered with Energy Upgrade California to offer rebates and financing on two comprehensive whole-home upgrade packages. Many interested homeowners still dropped out of the program because they preferred being able to make smaller, more affordable single-measure upgrades.
  • Go beyond financing. As emPower learned that many Santa Barbara County residents were not motivated by financing offers, the program shifted its focus to connecting with homeowners to fill a broader set of community needs, by holding community education events, matching homeowners with qualified contractors, and providing low-income and underserved markets with services.
  • Scaling up takes time. Before the program launched, the concept of home performance was unfamiliar to both homeowners and contractors, so emPower could not immediately generate a large volume of upgrade work. The program first had to create brand awareness for emPower, drive demand for whole-home energy upgrades, and prepare a workforce capable of meeting increased demand.
  • Motivate action. Given the high overall cost of home energy upgrades, customers often took several months to consider the purchase before signing a contract. To reduce the average decision period, emPower crafted several marketing campaigns with -time offers to generate a sense of urgency in homeowners.

What's Next?

To continue to support the region’s growing home energy upgrade market, emPower will leverage new funding sources and continue developing its multifaceted program:

  • With $5 million in funding from the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, as well as additional contributions from state funding agencies, the program is expanding to nearby San Luis Obispo and Ventura Counties. The expansion will offer the same comprehensive program design to residents of all three counties.
  • As it expands, emPower plans to enhance its program design with innovative variations of its service functions, including interest rate buy downs, financing for multifamily residences, new outreach strategies, incentive programs for contractors, and strategic partnerships with local agencies to leverage further resources.
  • The emPower program will continue working with lenders and utilities and plans to develop a program that will allow homeowners to finance single-measure or incremental energy upgrades outside of Energy Upgrade California’s whole-home upgrade program.

Additional Resources