Community Power Works Getting the Work Done

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The City’s Community Power Works program, funded out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA – the ‘economic stimulus’ legislation of 2009) received some critical reviews for starting up more slowly than the original plan.  It did turn out to be challenging to ramp up as quickly as had been hoped, but the good news is that the program is now well underway and is on track to meet or exceed its goals before the scheduled completion date next year.  Sadly, bad news about government programs is worthy of headlines; getting things done, even in a challenging and difficult experiment, is often overlooked.  We’ll see if the mainstream media ever cover this good news story!

Community Power Works is a bold experiment to see if a modest federal investment can leverage substantial investment by building owners in energy conservation.  While many building owners have often invested in the easiest measures (like wall insulation), the premise of Community Power Works is that doing comprehensive energy audits and linking building owners with financial incentives and access to financing can lead to more complete and extensive conservation packages being implemented.  By providing the opportunities for local contractors to increase their activity and experience in installing conservation measures, the hope is that the energy conservation sector will grow and be in a position to keep marketing and installing these measures in the market in the future.  If all goes well, Seattle will save energy in a cost effective way, create new jobs, and have businesses that will continue to succeed.

The program saw immediate successes in the institutional and commercial sectors.  Four major hospitals – Harborview, Virginia Mason, Swedish, and Group Health – led the way by undertaking extensive audits and implementing upgrade projects.  The goal in the commercial sector was to retrofit 600,000 square feet of commercial space:  300,000 square feet have been completed, 110,000 square feet is under construction, 1.5 million square feet are under bid negotiations, and 2.2 million square feet are in the auditing process.  Both of these sectors are headed for outstanding success, exceeding the program goals.

The goal for residential properties is to retrofit 2,070 units.  As of September 30, 780 single family homes and 600 multifamily units have completed upgrades or are in progress.  Community Power Works is continuing to perform audits and work with building owners to commit to improvements, and has a good chance to meet or exceed this program goal as well by the middle of next year, when the program is scheduled to be finished.  The program has completed over 50 homes in each of the last two months.

And there is more good news on the residential front.  Homeowners are saving 28 to 30% of their energy consumption, more than anticipated, and are investing an average of almost $15,000 per home to achieve that.  To finance that, more than a quarter of them are using the innovative financing tools that Community Power Works has developed.  An evaluation by Washington State University found that 93% of participants are satisfied enough that they would recommend Community Power Works to their friends.

Whether this will translate into continued momentum after the federal funding expires is still an open question.  But contractors are happy, indicating that they are gaining experience, developing better marketing and sales skills, and hiring more people.  So far, the program has created over 109,200 hours of work performed by 782 people, with 26 contractors involved.  That means millions of dollars in the pockets of workers and business owners, more millions saved by consumers in energy bills, with all of that money circulating through the local economy and creating still more jobs in other businesses.

It appears unlikely that additional federal money will be available from Congress, even though the recession is still not completely over.  As the program winds down next year, the City will have to determine if there are key elements that should be funded locally, or if there is enough momentum in the private sector to keep the energy conservation work going.  Community Power Works has demonstrated that we can stimulate the private sector to create jobs through saving energy, and we need to ensure that this activity continues.

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