Now that the New Orleans City Council has approved final details of an Entergy-sponsored citywide energy efficiency program, a big-tent coalition of supporters is optimistic that despite some shortcomings, the long-awaited initiative will help cut down on power consumption and save money for thousands of homeowners and businesses.
The program, in the works for four years, will be administered by Clearesult Consulting Inc., a Texas energy management company that managed a similar but smaller 18-month energy efficiency program, called Quick Start, for Entergy New Orleans. The City Council signed off on the plan at its regular meeting Thursday.
By most measures, Entergy says the predecessor program, established to buy time before this larger-scale effort was ready, was a success. More than 500 customers who participated reduced their peak electricity demand by nearly 3,000 kilowatts and prevented nearly 9,300 tons of carbon emissions, the utility says. In turn, they received a total of $741,000 in rebates.
Through the Energy Smart program, Entergy is expected to start making cash incentives available to more than 7,000 residents and businesses annually. Entergy New Orleans has allocated just over $11 million for the next three years for Energy Smart, which was devised by a community task force in 2007 and 2008 and refined by Entergy over the following year; it is slated to roll out next month.
There are 11 components of the program, which include the opportunity for an in-home energy audit to help spot ways to improve efficiency, as well as instant rebates or cash incentives to homeowners who make improvements aimed at lowering power consumption.
For residents, businesses
Among those eligible for cash rebates: homeowners who install cost-effective energy-saving measures; small-business customers with peak demand of less than 100 kilowatts per month; and commercial, industrial and government customers with peak demand of 100 kilowatts or more per month.
The program also provides assistance for low-income residential customers to reduce utility bills through home weatherization in order to qualify for up to $6,500 in additional energy-efficiency work through the federal Weatherization Assistance Program.
Entergy says the program should benefit the entire community by curbing increases in its power consumption and reducing the need to build new power plants or buy pricey power on the open market on hot summer afternoons. It also aims to expand the local infrastructure of energy-efficiency experts, builders and contractors, creating a "green work force" to help homeowners and businesses install energy-saving measures.
"We want to transform the market by creating a demand for energy-efficiency products and services, and also to stimulate the development of a green work force," said Cathy Herren, director of energy-efficiency programs for Entergy New Orleans.
Neither program is state-mandated. Entergy implemented the Quick Start program because "we knew that the development of Energy Smart was going to take time, because we wanted input from everyone to make sure that there was buying-in and that we developed the best program we could," Herren said.
That program had a $2 million budget, taken from shareholders' funds, she said. Starting with the smaller effort also allowed Entergy to watch the number of trained contractors grow and recruit them so that there would be a ready pool available when this program was launched.
Residents slower to respond
Entergy officials hope to use some of the lessons of the first program. Herren said the non-residential market was "quicker to reach and also quicker to embrace energy-efficiency, while the residential market was a little slower to develop."
"We just learned a lot about the characteristics of the residential customer, that often times they react when something breaks," she said.
But while many in the crowd, ranging from local contractors to environmentalists, energy conservationists and renewable advocates, praised the program as an important step forward at the council's Utility Committee meeting last month, they say it has also veered in some ways from the initial talks that took place in 2007.
Forest Bradley-Wright, senior program director at the Alliance for Affordable Energy, said the Energy Smart program was originally intended to include a financing component "that would improve the financial attractiveness of energy-efficiency and assist with the upfront costs," which, he said, "can be a barrier for people who want energy-efficiency, but don't have the money just on hand to invest in a very extensive amount of energy-efficiency improvements."
Linking savings, financing
Supporters of the measure contend that such a step is necessary to increase access to the technology. That's a view shared by groups like the National Governors Association, which released a report last month recommending that clean-energy financing programs include components like revolving loan funds to recycle funds in the state's economy; developing utility on-bill financing programs to marry repayment with the source of savings; and creating linked deposit or loan purchase programs, which help leverage private capital.
"Ideally, that would have been a component of Energy Smart," agreed Beth Galante, executive director of the New Orleans office of Global Green USA, a nonprofit environmental organization.
"The two biggest obstacles to people taking advantage of programs to reduce their energy costs are education, just knowing about it and being able to get enough information ... and of course, money," Galante said.
"Anytime that you make it financially easier to make improvements to homes and businesses, it makes it much more likely that people will go ahead and do that," she said.
Still, Bradley-Wright said he believes that the lack of a financing arm is not likely a deal-breaker for the effort. New Orleans officials are in the process of finalizing a program with the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, a nonprofit that offers information on energy-efficiency, that would help fill some of that void with more than $1 million in funding.Determining the level of qualification for home energy raters participating in the initiative has also been a back-and-forth among many participants and observers as the program has evolved.
That much was clear at the council's Utility Committee meeting Jan. 27, as representatives from several environmental groups, including the Alliance for Affordable Energy, urged that home energy raters complete training accredited by the Residential Energy Services Network, which addresses a wide range of energy-related issues, like the principles of building science, thermal resistance of insulation materials and the minimum-rated features for buildings.
Jerrel Gustafson, director of Clearesult, said in an interview Thursday that the level of certification required of home energy raters will vary with each job.
"There are different levels that a home energy rater can offer," said Gustafson, who has two-plus decades of experience managing utility conservation programs. "That walk-through assessment, I feel that it doesn't need to be a required home energy rater."
Meanwhile, as the council's Utility Committee's motion last month to recommend the final details the city's first energy efficiency program was met with a round of applause from the audience, Entergy officials were quick to pass the credit around.
"This is not our program. This belongs to the citizens of New Orleans," Herren, the director of energy-efficiency programs, said in an interview. She paused to add: "Although we're delighted to promote energy enfiffiency and make our city a more energy-efficient city."