January 10, 2013Did you know that the city has a program to help pay for energy upgrades to residential and commercial property, and property owners are eligible for grants, loans or rebates regardless of income?
The Better Buildings for Greensboro program, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has gone through several changes since the city won the $5 million grant in 2010. Despite having run through most of its three-year timeline, the program has spent less than half of the grant money as its May deadline approaches.
The stated goal of the Better Buildings program is to promote energy efficiency and create jobs by encouraging residents to retrofit their houses with energy saving upgrades. Upgrades typically involve adding insulation, making homes more airtight and sealing duct work.
The program's original approach focused on offering low interest loans to residents of east Greensboro to pay for energy upgrades.
However, in 2010, the Greensboro City Council was critical of the program for encouraging residents to take on more debt, debt that the city would have to guarantee to lenders. It was also a concern that the program focused just on east Greensboro rather than the entire city.
At its Tuesday, June 7, 2011 meeting, the City Council voted to restructure the program by making it available citywide and shifting it from a loan program to one involving grants and rebates as well. At the time some east Greensboro residents were critical of the move, which they said diverted resources from east Greensboro residents who needed them.
The $5 million grant from the Department of Energy is intended as seed money. The program requires private sector dollars to cover a majority of the money spent on upgrades.
The Better Buildings program has used commercial upgrades to leverage money to put towards grants. Commercial partners in the program covered the cost of their own assessments and upgrades and received a small rebate from the program. The program has upgraded 1.4 million square feet of commercial space.
To qualify for a grant an applicant cannot exceed the federal poverty level by more than 250 percent, which means a family of four making $57,000 a year would qualify for a grant. However, anyone, regardless of income, can qualify for a rebate.
Greensboro Department of Planning and Community Development Neighborhood Services Division Manager Barbara Harris said the average grant funded energy upgrade costs of about $2,500 per house. The program also makes "incentives" available in the form of rebates for households that exceed the income limit for grant recipients. Regardless of income, people who spend money to make their homes more energy efficient qualify for federal subsidies.
About two-thirds of the homes in the program are being funded by grants, with the remaining homes funded by rebates of up to $3,000.
Harris said that as of mid-December the program had spent $2.4 million of the grant money and had completed one-third of the residential work planned. The program has also performed upgrades on commercial space, which has allowed it to leverage money to put towards grants.
Of the program's total expenditure, so far $994,000 has been spent on upgrades and assessments, $158,000 on program supplies, $216,000 on marketing and outreach, $70,000 on contractor training and oversight of work, $645,000 on funds deposited with lenders and $318,000 on administration.
According to Harris, the Department of Energy has expressed a willingness to extend the deadline.
"We are probably going to request an extension of at least a couple of months," Harris said.
Without such an extension Greensboro could have to return unspent grant money to the federal government.
Harris said she did not feel the project had faced any particular delays, but said it was a very complex and time-consuming process, which included collecting 246 points of data for each home to be submitted to the Department of Energy.
Harris said there were some instances of payment delays to contractors, which she blamed on incomplete information from some contractors on their invoices.
"Early on we attempted to get checks out of the door as quickly as possible for our contractors to avoid negatively impacting their cash flows, providing additional time for some of them to provide the data required by the Department of Energy. After a bit we had to begin enforcing the requirement that DOE data be provided before checks were released," Harris said in an email.
Harris said there had been some complaints from residents in the program about work not being completed soon enough, but said, "we've got over 1,400 applicants," and that some were still on a waiting list.
The city has focused marketing efforts for the program almost exclusively on five neighborhoods: Ardmore Park, Cottage Grove, Kirkwood, Nealtown and Random Woods.
As part of the neighborhood outreach program these neighborhoods have been canvased with information promoting the energy upgrades and encouraging applications to the better buildings program. However the program is available to all residents of Greensboro.
The city has attempted to get the word out about the program through newspaper articles, city water bills, yard signs and contractors advertising the program.