City wants to green every building in five years 

Revolving loan program key to energy efficient pitch

The City of Charleston is moving forward with plans for an expansive energy-saving program with the ambitious goal of improving every building in the city within the next five years.

"This is a crisis," says Harry Lesesne, a senior adviser to Mayor Joe Riley. "We have to do something bold. We've got to set high goals and create high expectations of ourselves."

Shepherded by the city's Green Committee, the current proposal would create a nonprofit hub for everything energy efficient, from contractors to financing, with a focus on a reusable pot of money loaned out to homeowners and businesses looking to make cost-effective improvements.

Riley has joined mayors from across the country in pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a local level. But the city is taking a unique step by combining municipal resources with the private and nonprofit efforts already under way in the community.

"We're trying to do things in Charleston that haven't been done," Riley says.

The city's program is expected to improve efficiency by 30 percent and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 133,000 metric tons.

To get from here to the first retrofit, the city has applied for a $145,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, and it's raising another $145,000 in private money that would be used to finalize plans for the program, hire administrators, and begin selling the effort to the public. If the money is secured, the energy-efficiency partnership should be operational in early 2010.

Aside from general apathy, the main hurdles for getting people to make efficient home improvements are the complexity and the additional costs. Charleston's model would put every feasible need under one umbrella, thus making it easy to coordinate every aspect of the project in a "one-stop shop," Lesesne says, including help with building assessments, selecting needed improvements, finding a contractor, monitoring the work and the end result, and resolving any disputes.

"If it's easy for you, cost effective, and it saves you money on your power bill, you're more likely to do it," he says.

The partnership would do this by relying heavily on the private companies already in the efficiency business, as well as the local groups fostering energy alternatives, like the Sustainability Institute and the Coastal Conservation League.

"There are agencies and businesses providing energy efficiency services, but none have the size and market penetration needed to transform the energy use profile of the city," reads the city's applications for the EPA funding.

The partnership would use money it raises to reduce the added costs typically associated with these energy-saving appliances and upfits. One proposal for financing would add the reimbursement charge to the property owner's water bill, but Lesesne says that's a detail that still needs ironing out. There's been some concern about the city using the threat of a lien on the property to encourage prompt repayment.

The city will rate the success of the partnership on the level of participation and its fundraising ability, as well as the cost effectiveness of the solutions and the competitiveness of the financing for the consumer. The trickier goal is the massive scope of the city's vision.

Initially, the partnership would practice on five buildings, then expand to 1,000 by 2011, including all city-owned buildings, and then on to every structure.

Considering the growing interest in going green, finding the first 1,000 may not be a big challenge, but Lesesne says the partnership will have to show dividends from those early projects — making good on its easy, economical, and efficient promises — in order to get the rest of the city on board.

The mayor has repeatedly stressed the jobs that would be created under such a program, and certainly the aggressive goals laid out would suggest that a surge in manpower would be a necessity.

But there are some who aren't drunk on the green Kool-Aid yet. The EPA expects a very competitive pool of applicants, but the requirement of matching local funds has turned off some municipalities in the country.

A majority of the Charleston City Council supports moving forward with the partnership, but it has not assuaged every concern.

"I'm scared that we're putting ourselves in serious financial risk," says Councilman Gary White.

Lesesne says all of the money for the effort has come from grants or private fundraising, not from city taxpayers.

Charleston's partnership plan was developed by efficiency consultant Serrafix, which would likely be contracted to complete the work if the EPA grant is approved.

Other cities, utilities, and nonprofits have similar efficiency funding pools, according to Serrafix, but those programs have run into particular challenges Charleston can avoid. Efforts by utility companies or nonprofits are either under-utilized or face logistical challenges, while other local governments get tripped up in developing reasonable financing. Charleston's program would benefit from city resources in regards to administration, but would rely on private financial support for much of the work.

Riley stresses that this is a huge opportunity for Charleston to do something that will impact residents and their pocket books by cutting energy bills and creating green jobs.

And the might of the green movement stands behind him. A recent Georgia Tech study of the Southeast found that efforts toward energy efficiency can make an impact on consumption in the region, but the end result will be determined based on the availability of cost effective solutions.


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