Because Rutland County, Vermont, residents often experience seven-month winters, a nonprofit housing organization that promotes affordable and sustainable homeownership decided to tackle the challenge of making the county’s historic building stock more comfortable and energy-efficient through the long winter season. Using $4.5 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, NeighborWorks® of Western Vermont (NWWVT) created the Home Energy Assistance Team (H.E.A.T.) Squad, a one-stop-shop to promote home energy upgrades.
The program offered Rutland County residents energy efficiency education, expert energy advisors, and financial incentives such as low-cost loans and subsidized home energy assessments. The H.E.A.T Squad also built a strong network of qualified contractors and supplemented their efforts with a temporary workforce to ensure residents would receive quality service throughout the upgrade process.
From its experience as a housing agency, NWWVT saw the main barriers to residential energy upgrades in the region as the lack of widespread energy efficiency knowledge and the high cost of home energy assessments. To overcome these barriers, NeighborWorks designed the H.E.A.T. Squad around a simple hypothesis: customer service can replace or reduce dependence on costly incentive payments, enabling residents to complete home energy upgrades.
The H.E.A.T. Squad worked directly with trusted community leaders to spread the word about energy efficiency and upgrade information. After getting the conversation rolling with homeowners about the benefits of energy efficiency, viable upgrade options, and available financing, H.E.A.T Squad members installed energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. Once homeowners signed up for the program, the H.E.A.T. Squad connected residents with qualified local contractors, who performed home energy assessments and worked with homeowners to complete a home upgrade.
(July 2010 to June 2014)
NeighborWorks used a combination of education, low-cost financing, subsidized home energy assessments, and workforce support to encourage home energy upgrades.
- Program Design: When homeowners signed up for the program, they were assigned an energy advisor to guide them through the home upgrade process. The energy advisor scheduled a reduced-cost home assessment with one of the H.E.A.T. Squad’s approved, Building Performance Institute (BPI)-certified contractors, walked customers through the results of the assessment, and helped homeowners determine which energy upgrades to implement. Customers who decided to complete a home energy upgrade were eligible for a low-interest loan through the program.
- Marketing and Outreach: The H.E.A.T. Squad created broad awareness of the need for energy efficiency, established local credibility, and formed relationships with local groups focused on community education. Outreach efforts included word of mouth marketing, such as letters to the editor, social media campaigns, and customer testimonials; traditional print, radio, and television advertising; and community events such as town meetings, phonathons, and energy parties. To drive demand for the program, NWWVT also held a county-wide competition that awarded $10,000 to the towns that achieved the highest energy savings and highest number of upgrades through the program.
- Financing: As a certified Community Development Financial Institution, NWWVT was able to finance loans in-house. Homeowners who completed home energy upgrades through the H.E.A.T. Squad were eligible for a 10-year, 4.99% unsecured loan of up to $15,000. The loan included a six-month payment holiday, which allowed homeowners to begin saving money on energy bills before making their first payment on the project.
- Workforce Development: NWWVT worked closely with local contractors to develop a strong network of BPI-certified providers. In addition to providing BPI certification courses, sales trainings, and several weatherization skills workshops, the program held individual meetings with contractors to support their work with clients and group meetings to discuss program issues and changes. To help sustain the growing workforce, NWWVT also created a temporary labor pool to allow contracting companies to meet spikes in demand and try workers out before hiring additional staff.
NWWVT adopted a nimble style of experimentation that allowed it to test strategies in one area and quickly expand successful efforts to the entire region. Lessons learned include:
- Experiment with incentives. NeighborWorks originally offered home energy assessments for the subsidized price of $50, but many already efficient homes looking for a “pat on the back” signed up. As this effort cost the program but did not lead to home upgrades, NWWVT raised the price to $100. At this level, the program found, only residents who were serious about upgrading their homes tended to pursue them at that cost.
- Find a community champion. NWWVT started the town upgrade competition as a way to motivate Rutland County residents, and the program found the most success in towns where a driven, community-oriented resident was willing to work with NWWVT to lead upgrade efforts.
- Modify messaging to fit communities. Through the town upgrade challenge, NWWVT learned that people in cities tend to identify with neighborhoods, while residents in rural areas identify with their town. Program staff drew on these feelings of identification when designing messaging to more effectively market the H.E.A.T. Squad and drive demand for upgrades.
- Use data to track effectiveness. The H.E.A.T. Squad’s program manager analyzed signup and upgrade data daily to evaluate the use of marketing dollars and address areas that did not work. For example, the program stopped having a signup table at social events such as lawn concerts and sidewalk sales when data showed that the events yielded no results.
- Build trust with contractors. When NWWVT launched the H.E.A.T. Squad, the existing pool of contractors worked in isolation and did not see each other as resources for sharing best practices or new ideas. By offering workshops and holding frequent meetings with local contractors, NWWVT was able to engage contractors and build their trust with the program and each other.
- Make partnerships a two-way street. NWWVT found that listening and responding to contractors was just as important as communicating clearly to them about the structure and goals of the program. The program also turned to contractors for advice when necessary.
- Offer sales training. NWWVT offered sales training to help contractors better communicate the benefits of the program to homeowners. After making the training course mandatory for all partnering contractors, the program saw conversion rates from home assessment to home upgrade rise.
NWWVT is pursuing new partnerships with local utilities, state organizations, and other nonprofits:
- NWWVT plans to expand the program to four additional counties in southern Vermont—Addison, Bennington, Windham, and Windsor— with a goal of reaching one-quarter of the state’s homes by 2020.
- NWWVT received $2 million from the Vermont State Treasury to allow the program to offer energy efficiency loans through the state.
- The program is investing in software to allow for online applications and approvals and to improve the program’s ability to manage customer service between clients and contractors.
- NWWVT is partnering with Green Mountain Power, the largest utility in Vermont, to provide the state’s first on-bill financing offer for energy efficiency projects.
- NWWVT is constructing a H.E.A.T. Squad mobile app to engage and educate customers.
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