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How the Community Energy Challenge Is Protecting Our Environment and Creating Local Jobs

October-November 2012

Cover Story

How the Community Energy Challenge Is Protecting Our Environment and Creating Local Jobs

by Emily Kubiak

Emily Kubiak attended Evergreen State College to study environmental science. She eventually transferred to Huxley College of the Environment at WWU, where she graduated with a BS in Environmental Science and a Minor in Sustainable Design. Emily is currently the Energy Program Assistant with Sustainable Connections in Bellingham.

Home and business owners throughout Whatcom County are saving money, increasing their building’s value, creating local jobs and protecting our environment with a program called the Community Energy Challenge (CEC). The CEC is a unique collaboration between two non-profits: the Opportunity Council, a local community-action agency that manages the program and brings over 30 years of experience with low-income weatherization to the table, and Sustainable Connections, a membership organization that helps local, independently owned businesses network and adopt economically and environmentally sustainable practices.

The CEC provides technical expertise and financial assistance to make saving energy easy and affordable. This article provides an overview of how the program works from the client’s perspective, then discusses the impact it is having on the local economy, how it came into being, its future and the place that this local effort has among similar programs around the state and nation as our society looks to strengthen our economy while reducing carbon pollution.

How It Works

CEC participants receive affordable energy assessments and recommendations for efficiency upgrades to their buildings. During a residential assessment, a certified building analyst uses a variety of diagnostic tools and examines the quality of insulation, air leakage, heating and cooling systems and other aspects of the home. Following the assessment, an energy advisor meets with each homeowner to explain the results and provide specific recommendations for improvement, while prioritizing cost-effective measures. By having a third party review all of the systems, homeowners can feel smart about focusing their time and money where they will get the most savings.

The advisor also helps the homeowner take advantage of rebates, incentives, and an exclusive low-interest loan opportunity, as needed. Local contractors that are experienced with energy efficiency projects are available to do the work. “The contractors did an excellent job and the Building Performance Center did a quality control inspection at the end of the project that gave us a lot of confidence in the work,” said Sylvia Graham, one participant in the CEC. Homeowners are saving an average of 20 percent on their energy bills after upgrades (about $470 per year), and incentives available through the program are reducing project costs by an average of 27 percent.

Small businesses can receive a similar suite of services. A Commercial Conservation Specialist performs a walkthrough energy assessment, helping the business owner identify opportunities to save energy. The specialist then prepares an action plan outlining all of the savings opportunities and assists the business owner with any of the measures they select to complete, including financial incentives to help them implement more expensive improvements — from heat pumps to solar panels. Participating businesses save an average of $500 or more per year on their energy bills.

All participants, both residential and commercial, are eligible to apply for a low-interest loan from Banner Bank. Loans for qualifying energy efficiency projects are offered at discounted interest rates, thanks to an interest rate buy down. This opportunity is available exclusively to those who have had an energy assessment from the CEC. These loans are available to make sure that up-front costs are not a barrier.

“The CEC is a real win for the community,” said Alex Ramel, Energy and Policy Manager with Sustainable Connections. “Helping residents and local business owners reduce their energy bills keeps money in the local economy. Reducing demand for energy also reduces the need for costly new energy infrastructure and reduces our reliance on foreign energy, and it’s a win for local contractors who are completing the jobs.”

If you would like more information about the CEC, or want to sign your home or business up for an assessment, visit or call 360-676-6099.

The Numbers

To date, the CEC has performed energy assessments at more than 900 Whatcom County homes, with half of those assessments leading to energy efficient home improvements. Around 200 local businesses are also participating, 59 of which have completed capital improvements to date and almost every one completing at least one quick-fix measure after their assessment. The following table contains statistics illustrating the impact of the program, both on the local economy and job market and on the homes and businesses that are participating.

As of July 1, 2012

See table

Program Inception and Goals

The CEC originated as a pilot program in 2009 with early support from the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County as well as from both Puget Sound Energy and Cascade Natural Gas. This strong local support helped leverage larger sources of national funding from the EPA and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as The Stimulus Package. Washington State government directed some of the ARRA funds to Community Energy Efficiency pilot programs. The short-term goal was to cut energy use and energy costs while creating construction sector jobs during the economic downturn by providing funds to existing and start-up weatherization and energy efficiency programs; the long term goal was to gain experience implementing these kinds of programs so that the state can achieve even greater energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction goals. Transforming the market by showing the value of comprehensive weatherization and energy efficiency services and training contractors to meet the demand for these services has helped keep the construction sector on its feet in Whatcom County, and even allowed some new businesses to establish themselves during a difficult time.

The beauty of focusing on energy efficiency and weatherization to create jobs is that the benefits are myriad and reach far beyond the paychecks that the work generates. Occupants of homes and businesses that have made efficiency upgrades are more comfortable in their buildings while saving money on their energy bills. Extra money in the pockets of residents translates to more economic activity at local businesses. By supporting energy efficiency programs such as the CEC, utility companies can help mitigate the demand for new energy infrastructure, allowing them to keep energy prices lower than they would be otherwise — again, keeping more money in the local economy. Energy efficiency is a greatly underutilized resource to meet new demand for energy and, by making what we are already producing go farther, we reduce our need for fossil fuels from both foreign and US sources and prevent the associated air and water pollution from its extraction, transport, and use. To date, the CEC is supporting some 84 jobs in Whatcom County, while reducing Whatcom’s carbon footprint and stimulating the local economy with more than $6.5 million in economic activity.

Before the influx of ARRA funding and the inception of the CEC, Whatcom County had long been a leader in low-income weatherization, through the Opportunity Council’s weatherization program and its Building Performance Center (BPC). They literally “wrote the book” that the Department of Commerce uses as the standard by which low income weatherization is done throughout the state, and provide those services directly in Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties. The creation of the CEC was predicated on the idea that there was a huge unmet need for similar weatherization services in households that didn’t qualify for free low-income services, as well as many small businesses that had never had the resources to address energy efficiency as part of their strategy for financial success. The CEC set ambitious goals in focusing on community-wide energy efficiency retrofits, and the Opportunity Council supplied the experience to make the program feasible.

The CEC sought to address these needs by providing participants with third party information, trained contractors, financial incentives and low-interest loan opportunities to make upgrades more affordable than they have ever been. This also makes the process of participating in the CEC an educational opportunity, helping home and business owners make more informed decisions and choose cost-effective upgrades. Empowering home and business owners with this information shows them that in many cases what is right for their pocketbook, the environment, and their comfort can be one and the same.

Innovations and Market Transformation

After two years in full operation, there is evidence that the culture of energy efficiency that the Community Energy Challenge is working to cultivate is catching on in Whatcom County. Barron Heating, a local HVAC contractor that works with the CEC, has made a big change in the way they approach projects, by putting their sales estimators and management staff through building performance training and utilizing aspects of the energy assessment process on every home in which they install heating or cooling equipment. This whole-systems approach allows Barron to greatly fine-tune their recommendations to energy efficiency improvements and has made for a more viable business model to better serve their customers. “At Barron Heating, our goal has always been to offer our clients the most energy smart decisions they could make,” said Chris Baisch, Sales and Marketing Manager at Barron Heating. “Through advancements in technology and training, we’re now able to offer solutions that not only make energy sense and offer a return on investment, but also leave homes more comfortable and healthy than ever. The recommendations and incentives available through the Community Energy Challenge have made those decisions easier than ever.”

A similar market transformation is taking place in the local commercial sector. Generally, small to medium sized businesses have been overlooked for wide-scale energy efficiency programs in favor of large buildings, such as hospitals or grocery stores that fall into neat categories and can be centrally managed. Many small businesses don’t own the buildings they operate out of, and there is such wide variation in occupant activity and energy needs by business type and individual habits that energy savings in this sector are hard to pin down and quantify — the lack of economies of scale has really left small businesses out. The CEC decided to take an innovative approach with its Commercial Conservation Services (CCS) and focus on the potential energy savings in this sector in aggregate.

Working with utilities companies to track the energy use of participating businesses and employing an engineer on staff to do energy savings calculations has allowed the CEC to measure the impact of all the participating businesses working to save together. On average, businesses are saving 2-3 percent on their energy bills just from implementing free and low cost measures after their energy assessments. Those implementing capital improvements are saving much more and, to date, local businesses participating in the program have saved $141,340, or 772,205 kWh, in aggregate. That is equivalent to the annual usage of 67 average American homes.

A lighting change-out program to replace incandescent bulbs with efficient CFL or LED equivalents is a relatively new addition to the CCS program that is proving to be a cost effective tool for energy savings in any size business. CCS staff visit the business with lighting samples and help them find the right replacement to suit their needs and provide the right look, feel, and performance for the business type and application. By taking the time to identify the correct product for the correct application, CCS staff highlight the quality of the new generation of LED lighting and its suitability as a desirable replacement for incandescent lighting. While this new technology can be expensive, it is proving cost effective and can pay for itself in just a few years. Through a combination of grant funds and Puget Sound Energy’s rebates, the CEC is able to help businesses get some LED lighting installed for free.

By creating greater awareness of LED technology , the CEC is helping to prime the market for even greater use of LEDs in the future. All Phase Electric, the local distributor that supplies the CCS, has begun stocking more LEDs in their local warehouse.

“The great acceptance of LED products in the market place has allowed LED manufactures to come up with a very diverse LED line that allows significant energy saving,” explains Ben Roberts of All Phase Electric. “Many times the energy saving is greater than 60 percent.  As manufactures become more efficient in producing their products we should see the price of the LED units drop. Soon it will be very common that we see LED lighting fill the majority of our lighting needs in retail, outdoor, office and residential lighting.  And the benefit they will see is better lit spaces with a huge energy savings.”        

Big Picture

The CEC did not come into existence in isolation. In 2009, the Stimulus funding granted $80 billion to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs around the United States. Many of these programs had different goals and methods, but all shared the mission of reducing energy use in their communities and putting people back to work after the economic downturn. The ARRA funding came to the CEC through grants awarded to the Washington State University Energy Program, Whatcom County and the cities of Bellingham and Ferndale. That grant through the WSU Energy Program was known as The Community Energy Efficiency Program (CEEP), and selected seven pilot energy efficiency projects through a competitive process. Employees at both the Opportunity Council and Sustainable Connections had been envisioning a community-based energy saving effort like the CEC, and the CEEP funding allowed them to implement it on a much larger scale than would have been possible otherwise. Based on the success of the program in its first two years, it would appear that the market was ready for it!

Zooming out to the big picture, the Community Energy Challenge is in line with national goals to focus on institutionalizing the values of building performance and efficiency standards as a U.S.-wide strategy to reduce our energy needs as a country. In 2011, around 40 percent of the energy used in the United States was related to the buildings in which we live and work, costing over $400 billion. Building on the goals of the Stimulus funding, last year President Obama instituted the Better Buildings initiative to set goals to make commercial and industrial buildings 20 percent more energy efficiency by 2020. This program establishes standards for improvements and gives participants opportunities to share best practices to disseminate innovative solutions to energy efficient. There is also a move to educate appraisers to include energy efficiency in the value of commercial real estate to accurately reflect the investment that these improvements represent. With the values of energy efficiency and building performance being recognized at the national level, the Community Energy Challenge is proud to be aligned with the future of the industry.


As the Community Energy Challenge begins its third year of operation, the program is expanding to meet the energy efficiency needs of homeowners throughout northwest Washington. Because of the demonstrated success of this program and others like it at creating jobs and cutting costs, the state legislature has decided to continue supporting them. The new funding is part of a Washington State Jobs Bill (the 2012 Supplemental Capital Budget) and will continue to be managed by WSU Energy Program. This is an acknowledgment and recognition that deep energy efficiency can not only help meet the state’s goals for providing power to an expanding population, but that developing this sector has had a significant, measurable impact on job growth in the communities where pilot programs, such as the CEC, have taken place.

In the coming months the CEC will begin serving Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and San Juan Counties, partnering with local organizations to bring the lessons learned and expertise aggregated during the first two years of the project to serve our neighboring communities. This will give those counties the opportunity to use the structure and processes established and proven by the Whatcom CEC to build programs to employ local contractors and make local homes and businesses more efficient.

The CEC isn’t the only energy efficiency program in Washington that is taking the lessons that it has learned in the pilot phase and expanding to offer services to a larger area. Other CEEP programs located in Seattle, Spokane, Olympia and Walla Walla are all expanding their services to neighboring areas. Many of these programs have grown from different approaches, but in this stage of expansion WSU Energy Program has facilitated opportunities for the different programs to share and learn from each other and establish best practices for going forward. By sharing lessons learned, the programs will be able to better serve their communities and expand their offerings, increasing access to energy efficiency services and growing the market for weatherization and performance-based building improvements. Just as Whatcom County’s Building Performance Center has been a leader and a teacher for other low-income weatherization programs, the Community Energy Challenge is an ambitious and successful pilot program and is stepping up to share innovations developed in Whatcom County while fine-tuning its future approach, based on the developments made elsewhere in the state and country.

When the Community Energy Challenge began as a proposal three years ago, there was hope that the grant from ARRA for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects was a sign that our country was recognizing and institutionalizing the idea that creating jobs, improving the built environment and people’s quality of life, and protecting the environment can — and should — go hand in hand. The renewal of funding for the CEEP programs by the Jobs Bill demonstrated that for the time being, Washington State views continuing to support and expand these programs as an important piece of our state’s economic recovery and is dedicated to creating a much more robust weatherization industry to support more workers and help meet the energy demands of the future.

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