The Omaha World Herald ran a story on the front page of Sunday’s paper highlighting the status of the reEnergize Program, a City of Omaha and City of Lincoln, Department of Energy-funded program intended to build the energy retrofit market in those two cities. It’s a program that I’m quite familiar with, particularly as it relates to the commercial sector, and I felt the writers did a fair, albeit not perfect, job of characterizing some of the program’s trials and tribulations.

As with pretty much every news article, only a portion of the full story was told, and it’s unfortunate that the authors didn’t fill in—or weren’t given the space to fill in—all the gaps. Thus, I’ll step in and play journalist for a day (no offense to all the real journalists out there).

There’s a Commercial Program, Too.

The OWH story highlighted only the portion of the program aimed at the residential market. There’s also a commercial component for businesses and nonprofits that are interested in reducing their costs for energy and other resources. Full disclosure: Verdis is one of only a few “Advisors” on the commercial side that help participating businesses take the results of an energy evaluation (conducted by a qualified engineering company) and figure out how to move forward.

The process model for the commercial and non-profit portion of the reEnergize program, which simply consists of 1) enrollment, 2) an evaluation, and 3) advising.

It’s a simple process, really, and the benefits are many. First, enroll in program, which has been super-streamlined recently. Next, you’ll be contacted by the engineering firm doing the evaluation. They will ask for a little information about your building and will then do an onsite evaluation. I recently shadowed one such evaluation, and it took less than a few hours. The evaluator will put together a report that outlines a handful of projects for the building owner to consider, specifically noting costs, paybacks and other key decision-making criteria. Once that report is completed, the baton is handed off to an advisor (such as Verdis). We help make sense of it all and work with the owner to determine a plan of action.

The cost for all of the aforementioned: Nada. Zilch. Zippo. Nothing. Zero. Yet the market value for these services can range between $10,000–20,000. It is only time for the building owner to open their wallet when they get busy implementing. But here’s the thing: there are almost always simple changes that the owner can make that don’t cost them a dime. The kicker is that there’s no obligation to implement anything. With that said, most owners would be silly not to at least start ticking off many of the low-cost, high-impact items the minute they receive their report.

The reEnergize program is a really good deal, and I can’t quite figure out why every building owner in Omaha and Lincoln isn’t participating. The worst-case scenario is you have thousands of dollars worth of free services and a report with an associated action plan that spells out how you can begin saving money. Shameless plug warning: call me, I’ll help you get signed up and ensure we can serve as your advisor.

Wrong Metrics

The authors focused on the number of retrofits that had been completed (93) versus the original number that was projected in the grant (3,193). Clearly organizers are nowhere near where they had hoped to be when they initially wrote the grant, but the main impetus for why the reEnergize program was funded was to create a new market for energy audit and retrofit services, not to just complete 3,000 retrofits.

There was no mention of a metric aimed at measuring the grant’s effectiveness in creating a market. They came close when Jesse Krivolavek, president of American Energy Auditors, noted they did 50 energy audits in 2011 but are on track to do 500 this year. I’ll cut the reporters a little slack though because I’m not sure there is a great metric, at least in the short term, for whether or not a market has been created. It will be interesting to see how this all looks in two years. That’s the key test: how many firms will still be providing these services, and how is business.

Honestly, I’m hopeful but a little skeptical that much will change. Yes, people have been trained. And yes, new companies have been birthed, but neither of those things matter if the market isn’t interested in the services. At the residential level, it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet. I hope I’m wrong.

The Low and Moderate Income Program is Now A-W-E-S-O-M-E!

In my humble opinion, the original design of the program was fatally flawed because, as the article mentioned, it was targeted at very specific geographic areas that were, at least in Omaha, primarily low and moderate income folks, AND it required those folks to bring some pretty serious cash to the table. Some of those people can barely afford the necessities so asking them to cough up $250 to enroll in a program, regardless of the payback, was just not going to happen.

Organizers have since made right and created a more accessible program for low to moderate income participants. In essence, participants receive an energy audit and up to $3,000 in upgrades for only $100. For those that can’t afford the $100, a network of sponsors has been created to cover it, in essence making participation in the program free. This is a huge deal for those in our community that are most susceptible to increases in energy costs, and it’s imperative that those eligible are made aware and encouraged to participate.

Can reEnergize be Salvaged? It can and is!

There’s not a person involved with the program that will tell you that it’s gone as planned. Furthermore, I suspect that most, when being honest, will probably share an eye roll and tell a story of frustration and impatience. Errors were made and miscalculations were aplenty*. At times we wondered whether it would ever pick up, but it has and in a big way. It’s now accessible for ALL Omahans (and Lincolnites…we love you too!), and I firmly believe that Omaha will be in a better place if the program does well.

The most unfortunate thing about it right now is that nobody knows about it even though a cool million has been spent on marketing and communications (ouch!). So here are your marching orders: 1) sign up and 2) tell a friend.

Onward and upward.

[*Editor’s note: I’ve had a few, shall I say, lively conversations with a couple people since posting this blog, and I acknowledge that I sacrificed some important content and context for the sake of brevity. Furthermore, a few word choices may not have been perfect. It’s important for our readers to understand a few important things about the reEnergize program:

  1. reEnergize ventured where no (wo)man has gone before, and it’s a really complex and quickly evolving market to try and pin down. There was no precedent, which makes designing such a program extremely difficult. The concept is innovative and a bit bold, and in the end, did we really expect perfect success right out of the gate? Continuous improvement is a good thing. Some may suggest that the government shouldn’t be testing new ideas and theories on the public’s dime. I completely disagree. The government is the perfect place to do just that. It’s big and can handle a few bumps. Small businesses can’t.
  2. The “fatal flaw” that I mentioned above is more about the geographic limitations than it is about the income levels of the people that live therein. The Department of Energy pushed Omaha, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Seattle to try the “green zone” concept, and it didn’t work in all four locations. Interesting idea. Didn’t work. Revise. Move on.
  3. Forward action is a good thing. I’ve been in far too many frustrating meetings wherein attendees are discussing what should or could be done to solve a problem, but nobody goes out on a limb and takes action. The reEnergize program is a good example of a collection of organizations taking the bull by the horns and taking action. That, I can appreciate.
  4. Finally, reEnergize has evolved and done so in a very positive way. I want to be clear that the program is working right now, and I also want to reinforce the fact that it will only be successful if people participate, both residents and business owners. Government is normally limited to regulation and rarely offers incentives. In this case, the incentive is legit. It’s a big carrot; take a bite.