University Park, Maryland, a town of only 2,500 residents, sought to address the energy efficiency needs of its homeowners. To create a model for other resource-constrained small communities throughout the United States, and to improve the efficiency of 20% of its residents’ homes, University Park piloted the Small Town Energy Program (STEP) with $1.4 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, then expanded STEP to an additional three small towns in Maryland.

Throughout the course of the pilot, staff analyzed various program elements to determine their impact on homeowner participation, with the ultimate goal of optimizing STEP for replication in other small communities.

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

Defining Characteristics

University Park leveraged resources available through the existing utility and state Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® programs, including rebates and qualified contractors, to develop and implement STEP. The close-knit nature of the small town lent itself to a strategy of community-based social marketing, where word of mouth and other inexpensive measures encouraged neighbors to participate in the program.

One key element to the program’s success was having an energy coach who gave one-on-one support to homeowners as they navigated the process from energy assessment through upgrades. The energy coach spearheaded community outreach events to help homeowners understand the benefits of energy upgrades, work with contractors, and learn about financing tools available. Read more in the University Park final report.


(July 2010 to September 2013)

Approaches Taken

STEP worked with existing community resources, partner programs, and financial incentives but tailored its strategies to University Park residents and the other three small communities.

  • Residential Program Design: The program delivery model, called “Ready, Set, Save,” had three distinct steps. In the “Ready” stage, town residents learned about STEP through a public launch event and other materials, had the opportunity to sign up for the program, and met the energy coach. To help participants get “Set,” the energy coach walked them through the home energy assessment and helped them understand their upgrade options. In the final phase, STEP helped homeowners “Save” by helping them take advantage of all possible incentives and rebates.
  • Marketing and Outreach: The program took advantage of the small towns’ social networks and used low-cost marketing methods, such as inserts in local newsletters, postcards, lawn signs, and emails to area listservs. Local organizations helped engage homeowners; summer interns performed door-to-door outreach; and satisfied customers served as STEP ambassadors to their neighbors after having participated in the program. Each town held a launch event where residents could learn about and sign up for the program.
  • Financing: The program made financing energy efficiency measures as easy as possible for residents. The energy coach worked directly with homeowners to help them understand all the financing options available to them, including financial incentives and rebates from federal tax credits, local utilities, and state programs such as Maryland Energy Administration and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. STEP also offered residents a rebate of up to $400 for many types of energy efficiency improvements.
  • Workforce Development: University Park worked with contractors already certified through the local utility Pepco’s Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program and the state’s energy efficiency-oriented Be SMART program. STEP employed performance benchmarks to create a list of preferred contractors and provided quality control on the upgrades performed through the program.

Key Takeaways

By piloting STEP in University Park, then expanding it to three neighboring towns, program staff learned a number of lessons for creating an effective program for a small community, including:

  • Respect the community. Given the nature of small towns, word can spread quickly about whether a program is effective or not. STEP made sure to involve community members in directing and promoting the program, which helped gain residents’ trust.
  • Use community-based social marketing. Utilizing the established and trusted social networks of small towns, STEP promoted energy upgrades without expending many resources on media. Using neighbors that had participated in the program to spread the word was a very effective outreach strategy in these small communities.
  • Provide quality control. STEP employed a technical consultant to deliver quality assurance and quality control checks on contractors’ work. This kept contractors accountable, while also assuring homeowners that they were getting what they paid for.
  • Leverage existing partners and programs. As a small program with limited resources, STEP took advantage of existing partners’ resources, including the local utility and state programs’ qualified contractor network, rebates, and other incentives. Along with a federal tax credit and a rebate offered through the program, these tools significantly reduced the financial barrier to homeowners implementing upgrades.
  • Employ an energy coach. The independent energy coach’s one-on-one work greatly simplified the energy efficiency process for homeowners and helped them develop greater trust in the program. In the end, the use of an energy coach contributed to greater conversion rates from assessment to upgrade.
  • Make it easy to find qualified contractors. STEP simplified contractor selection by providing program participants with a list of five preferred contractors, selected from a host of state and utility efficiency program-eligible contractors.
  • Share information with stakeholders. STEP regularly communicated program statistics, including the numbers of participants, completed assessments, and completed upgrades, through updates to the town council, listservs, and program . This helped keep the program on track and stakeholders engaged.

What's Next?

STEP was a one-time program that concluded after three years. Its intent was not only to test an energy efficiency program, but also to serve as a model for small cities and towns throughout the United States. Other communities are already learning from its example:

  • Program staff created a tool kit, which features templates, best practices, and case studies, for other small communities to use to develop their own energy efficiency programs.
  • Communities in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and North Dakota have implemented programs based on STEP.

Additional Resources