It took a series of court decisions, two bottles of scotch and a whole lot of nail biting, but the statewide program to offer financing for home and business owners for energy efficiency projects is back on—with Santa Cruz-based Ecology action playing a key role in the landmark $33 million program.

Energy Upgrade California is a mega-partnership between groups that don’t always play nice: The California Public Utilities Commission, California Energy Commission, investor-owned utilities, publicly owned utilities, cities, counties and nonprofits. It will use federal stimulus funds to green up existing homes and buildings while also putting green into local economies. Homeowners will have access to rebates, incentives, money-saving energy improvements and participating contractors, who receive training and certification as part of the program.

It’s a complex web of governmental agencies, energy projects, contractors and financing. And Ecology Action’s right in the middle of it.

“There’s an economic benefit associated with these types of programs,” says Colin Clark, Ecology Action’s climate group program manager. “The rule of thumb: for every dollar spent doing energy-efficient projects, $6.70 goes back to the local economy. There’s a huge economic stimulus.”

Ecology Action is one of three subcontractors involved in the program. It’s tasked with administering the $33 million grant and providing on-the-ground support: technical assistance and outreach to participating property owners, contractors, city/county employees, training tools to community colleges and Workforce Investment Boards. (All of this means one immediate benefit to the local economy: Ecology Action’s currently hiring some 30 to 40 new employees, in Santa Cruz and in other counties, to work on the project.)

The other two subcontractors are both Bay Area-based. Renewable Funding is responsible for developing the web portal that will connect consumers to rebates, contractors, low-interest loans and the like. Renewable Funding is also partnering with the state Treasurer’s office to administer the financing piece of the program. The third partner, MIG, will provide the marketing and education components for Energy Upgrade California.

It almost didn’t happen. In March, the Western Riverside Council of Governments—which had failed to secure any funding under CaliforniaFIRST, a precursor to Energy Upgrade California—sued to halt the program that had just rejected its application. A judge sided with the SoCal governments and told the California Energy Commission to come back with a new program.

Then, in early June, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shot down the Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, program, which would have allowed homeowners to pay for solar panels through special assessment districts. Responding to the judge and to the feds, the energy commission announced a new program, Energy Upgrade California, designed to facilitate the installation and financing of energy efficiency projects by homeowners throughout California.

Again, the Western Riverside Council of Governments asked the court to stop the program (conspiracy theorists blame Tea Party candidates hoping to woo voters in the Nov. 2 election) and a Riverside Superior Court judge blocked the CEC from launching the efficiency program. This all happened in late October, just days before the Oct. 21 deadline to use the $33 million in federal stimulus funding—or lose it.

“How was I feeling?” muses Ecology Action Climate Group VP Margaret Bruce. “Well, there are two empty bottles of scotch in the office. I felt it was a coin toss. It could go either way. I really didn’t have any strong certainty that it was going to go in our favor, and I was not so convinced that the legal process was going to work in a timely manner.”

On Oct. 20, the California Court of Appeals Fourth District lifted the restraining order, allowing the energy commission to distribute the federal money.

The $33 million needs to be spent by the end of March 2012. However, all of the groups involved want to see the program continue beyond the end of the federal funding.
The action part of the plan begins in early 2011.
In January, the Energy Upgrade California website will provide a one-stop shop allowing homeowners to access energy efficient resources—like rebates from local water districts and power companies—and info on state and federal energy-efficiency programs, along with a database of contractors and financing options for making energy-saving upgrades. In a crucial development, certified contractors will be available to come assess all aspects of a home’s energy efficiency. It’s a holistic approach, Bruce says.

“When we take our cars to a mechanic, the mechanic doesn’t say, ‘I only look at windshield wipers,’” Bruce says. “He looks at the car as a whole system. We need to start looking at buildings as systems, not just the lighting, or the building shell, or insulation. Whole things work together much better as a system.”

They’ll count the project a success if it continues on April 1, 2012 without the federal funds.

“If the energy efficient market exists and is growing, then we’ve succeeded,” Clark says. “If it takes on a life of its own, then contractors can stay in jobs, folks can save money on their homes, kids can live in houses with less asbestos and no mold.” She adds another hope: “That in 2020, 9 million homes have been upgraded.”

“A million homes a year. That’s all we ask. And I want this program to be copied across the country.”

As goes California, according to the saying. It remains to be seen if the rest of the country will follow.

For more information visit the Energy Upgrade California site at

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