February 29, 2024

This story first appeared on Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Communities in southern Maine are collaborating on a pilot program aimed at helping residents overcome cost and logistical barriers to access climate-friendly home energy upgrades.

Five towns and two regional non-profit organizations have a three year, $800,000 grant of the US Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program in late 2023. The budget for the program is now being finalized for launch this summer or fall.

The grant will fund AmeriCorps members to provide one-on-one energy coaching for residents. These “navigators” will help identify the best cost and emission reduction equipment for each home, and will help residents apply for a range of associated tax credits, rebates and other incentives. The grant also includes about $500,000 to directly reimburse residents’ remaining costs.

“The pilot program, as we envision it, will remove the main capital barrier and help homeowners navigate the process with confidence,” said Kendra Amal, the town manager in Kittery, one of the towns participating in the grant. “We expect a significant increase in the number of households that can make energy-saving and cost-saving improvements to their homes through this program.”

Kittery joins the towns of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells and Ogunquit in partnering with the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission along with the York County Community Action Corporation. SMPDC will house the AmeriCorps navigators, while the county action agency will set up a new Southern Maine Energy Fund to help pay for projects and provide energy services staff to oversee actual retrofits and installations.

“We’ve heard from all of our communities that home weatherization and heat pumps are really important, but they didn’t feel like they could do it themselves,” said SMPDC Sustainability Coordinator Karina Graeter. “(This program) provides the opportunity for these smaller communities that don’t have their own sustainability staff or their own capacity to undertake major outreach and education efforts … to try to address the energy issues that have been proven to be really important to the community. “

Cost and information barriers

Maine relies more on home heating oil than any other state, and residential emissions are the state’s largest contributor to climate change after transportation. In recent years, Maine has been praised nationally for being successful efforts to incentivize efficient electric heat pumps as a substitute for oil. Install heat pump and weatherization rebates can amount to thousands of dollars per projectespecially for lower-income people, and federal tax credits can provide thousands more.

But even hefty incentives may not cover everything, and energy bill savings from these upgrades can take months or years to materialize — meaning many people still can’t afford the remaining project costs, Amal and Graeter said.

During Kittery’s climate action planning process, the town discovered that many residents were not taking advantage of state energy rebates, Amal said. And cost was not the only problem; Amal said residents also cite “the confusing and often rigid process required to qualify” for incentives as another reason they chose not to pursue home efficiency or electrification work.

“There are so many great incentives out there, but they’re always changing depending on what funding is available, you know, who’s running the program,” Graeter said. “Helping people navigate that requires a certain amount of skill and knowledge.”

The program’s navigators will be trained to help residents make the most of these complex offers, she said.

The grant proposal intends to connect with interested residents through whatever means they reach out to a participating group, whether it is via the county agency or a town. Residents of any income will be accompanied by a navigator, who will answer their questions, assess their needs and provide technical assistance in designing a project with the greatest impact on energy savings.

For low- and moderate-income families, the program will also provide immediate rebates to offset upfront project costs. The county agency’s energy technicians would do the actual installation work on the project and pursue other assistance options, including tax credits as needed.

Filling gaps on a regional scale

In the next six months of setting up the program, Graeter said her cohort plans to look to other regional groups for inspiration — such as the provincial agency collaborating on the grant, or Window Dressersthat builds heat-saving window inserts for low-income people—to design a community engagement approach that will reach the most people.

“The idea is to have a ‘no wrong way’ kind of option for people; meeting people where they are in terms of their energy needs, and finding out what assistance they need most,” she said.

The participating towns have been working on this program for years, since they initially worked together to fund Graeter’s position at SMPDC, Graeter said. This regional approach lets them learn from each other and build on shared progress rather than duplicating efforts, she said.

Amal noted that the pilot nature of the program also aims to help officials evaluate impact and potentially scale up similar efforts elsewhere in the state.

Graeter emphasized that the grant does not seek to replace federal energy tax credits or existing state programs offered by Efficiency Maine, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees Maine’s energy incentives.

“Our focus is really to increase access to those programs, and then provide some additional financial support to help bridge the gap between current incentives and the true cost of these upgrades, which are always shifting and changing,” she said. .

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