California’s Green Facelift

Santa Cruz’s Ecology Action is at the center of new program designed to save money and the environment
Just in time for the New Year, the Energy Upgrade California Program (EUCP) is announcing its plans to keep the environment green and clean while putting a different kind of green back into the pockets of the state and consumers alike.

A collaborative effort between nonprofits, utility companies and the California Energy Commission (CEC), the program will use federal stimulus funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA). It will allow homeowners and commercial businesses a unique opportunity to make their buildings more energy efficient by providing rebates and monetary incentives for upgrades. What makes this program different from others, is that it is a statewide program that will allow all 58 counties to participate in reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions providing more benefits than just monetary. At the cornerstone of the project is Santa Cruz’s own Ecology Action.

Founded in 1970, Ecology Action Santa Cruz is a nonprofit consultancy group that has helped homeowners, contractors and commercial businesses achieve the most environmentally friendly ways of creating or updating buildings. They will be one of three subcontractors involved in the massive project. One subcontractor, Renewable Funding, is in charge of building a web portal that will allow contractors, customers and even cities and counties to track their “greening” process along with providing information on the most efficient ways to upgrade. MIG, the other subcontractor, will provide marketing and education about the new program. Lastly, Ecology Action will oversee the distribution of the $33 million in funding and provide outreach and marketing to the Santa Cruz community.

“Ecology Action staff will be on the ground,” explains Ecology Action Spokesperson Bill Maxfield. “[This means] providing contractors, property owners and local government staff with technical assistance to facilitate uptake of energy efficiency and renewable generation upgrades.”

But this was a plan that almost wasn’t. Originally, the $33 million in funding was allocated to the CEC by the Department of Energy, as part of the ARRA, for the Property Assessed Clean Energy program (PACE). However, this past March, Western Riverside Council, representing 17 California cities, sued to have the state Superior Court block the money from being dispensed to municipalities, claiming they had been left out of the process. The judge agreed and ruled that the CEC had to come up with a new plan. With the money turning back over to the federal government by Oct. 21 if it wasn’t used, time was of the essence.

The CEC came back with the EUCP. But once more, the Western Riverside Council sued to block the plans and once again won. Then, in a stroke of luck, the California Court of Appeals Fourth District lifted the restraining order on Oct. 20. Needless to say, everyone at Ecology Action was holding their breath.

“That was a great moment of relief,” says Maxfield. “Finally, the fund that was designed to create jobs and conserve energy [could] go forward.” Ecology Action is currently looking to hire some 30 to 40 more staff members for the EUCP.

The program is divided into three separate tiers; Santa Cruz is in the second. The property owner first selects a contractor that is state certified for the EUCP. The program will offer easily accessible scholarship programs for contractors to become certified for the upgrades. Next, the homeowner can choose between a number of upgrade packages, which, according to an all-party energy panel that was held in San Francisco on Oct. 7, can deliver anywhere between a $1,000 to $4,000 rebate. Each package is different and, for homeowners, the upgrades can range anywhere from new duct sealing to window and wall insulation, as well as new fixtures such as solar water heaters. The contractors complete the job and file with the state exactly what has been done and a rebate check is mailed back to the property owner. This leaves the property owner to sit back and enjoy the additional savings that will come from less energy being bought from utility companies.

“The rule of thumb is that for every $1  spent on energy efficiency projects, $6.70 is sent back into our economy,” says Maxfield. He adds that this means the program can save a lot of money while reducing statewide energy consumption by 330 billion BTUs (British Thermal Units, a common energy measurement) by the year 2012. “The economic benefit of this reduction is phenomenal,” he says. In other words, you can think of it as a green stimulus package for your home.

The program will be implemented in a series of phases, with the first one beginning in early 2011. In this first wave, the online web portal previously mentioned will be uploaded and running. The portal is a unique tool to the EUCP, allowing property owners to check the status of projects and rebates. Yet with so many contractors already offering energy efficiency plans of their own, will they want “in” on the EUCP?

“I think there will be plenty of participation,” says Santa Cruz Green Builders Co-founder Taylor Darling. For three years, Santa Cruz Green Builders has been building energy efficient homes from the ground up and working on their own form of energy upgrades, including installing LED lights in old buildings and solar paneling.

“I think it’s really helpful,” says Darling of green home updates. “In a town like Santa Cruz, we aren’t growing outward much, since we are surrounded by the ocean and mountains. So that means there’s not a lot of new construction, it’s mostly remodels. The houses that are most inefficient are old houses that just need to be updated.”

And the competition agrees.

“The consciousness for [green building] and energy efficiency is way higher than it’s ever been before,” says Jesse Nickell, vice president of local construction company Barry Swenson Builders.  Founded in 1961, Barry Swenson Builders is another company that has been certified for green building, launching their program in 2006. Recently, Barry Swenson Builders has been working with Ecology Action on the overhaul of the old Sentinel building on Church and Cedar streets and has been a leader in energy efficient construction for local commercial buildings.

But while consciousness may be rising, for many people interested in energy upgrades, it boils down to economics and financing. For property owners who may not be able to purchase one of the EUCP upgrade packages, Nickell has some advice. “Window tinting, double pane glass and insulating your house are the most cost effective upgrades available,” he says. “Insulation is super cheap and you get the payback right away.”

While some consumers might be tempted to upgrade their buildings while the EUCP is still in its fledgling phase, the $33 million must be spent by the end of March 2012.  If this is done, Ecology Action projects the program will have its own legs to stand on, with the prospect of upgrading a million homes a year.

“The young people are definitely seeing this problem clearer than the people of my generation,” Nickell says. “Most fossil fuels will be diminished in my lifetime. We have to look ahead.”

Contributor at Good Times |

Mat Weir originally hails from Southern California but don't hold that against him. For the past decade he has reported on the Santa Cruz music scene and has kept the reading public informed on important community issues such as homelessness, rent hikes, addiction and social injustices. He is a graduate from UCSC, is friends with a little dog name Ruckus and one day will update his personal page, WeirdJournalism.com.

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