Cities across the U.S. are looking at adopting the model program started in Cambridge, Mass., that is helping people become energy efficient.  (© Martin Barraud/Iconica)Click to enlarge picture

Cities across the U.S. are looking at adopting the model program started in Cambridge, Mass., that is helping people become energy efficient.

Admit it: It gets irritating to be told — over and over and over — to go green when you can barely afford to go to town.

It costs $80 to fill the tank, and the gas bill at home is rising fast, too. So, sure, it's nice to know that an Energy Star refrigerator could slash the monthly electric bill. But where's the $1,000 for that new appliance supposed to come from?

Plus, how do you know which green technology is the best choice for your particular home? There are WaterSense toilets, Energy Star clothes washers, gray-water systems and double-pane windows, to name just a few choices.

All those green tips have turned into white noise. It's hard to know just what to do, let alone how to pay for it.

Enter the Cambridge Energy Alliance, which is shaping up as a model solution for cities nationwide. The Massachusetts nonprofit has an answer that, on its face, is so deceptively simple one can't help but wonder why it hasn't been done before: Go to every home, business and public building and offer a complete, on-site energy makeover, including financing that means no extra costs for owners.

Read:  9 tips for starting your own energy alliance 
Discuss:  What would it take for you to go green?

Your energy savings foot the bill
The alliance kicks into action this summer, with plans to reach half of Cambridge's buildings within five years, and already it has attracted plenty of imitators. It uses no taxpayer money, relying instead on a revolving loan pool made up largely of private funds. Borrowers don't even need to incur extra monthly payments; their loans are paid with the savings from the new reduced energy bills.

"You're borrowing from your utility budget to pay for two things: a now-lower utility bill and the debt service on the loan," says Steve Morgan, of Clean Energy Solutions, the lead consultant on the project. "This can be done without a government penny."

The energy alliance model provides hands-on guidance from start to finish. It will:

  • Come to you. The alliance plans grassroots "viral marketing" to reach every household and business.
  • Conduct an energy audit of your home or building.
  • Outline the cost of potential upgrades to heating, plumbing and electrical systems and to insulation, structure and appliances.
  • Estimate the projected savings.
  • Calculate the number of months each upgrade would take to pay for itself in energy savings. For instance, lights or a refrigerator might have a short payoff — perhaps one year — and thermal windows a long payoff — maybe 15 years.
  • Suggest which upgrades are cost-effective.
  • Arrange financing. Owners can pay for the upgrades themselves or choose from prearranged loan plans, including a low-interest loan for low-income residents and areas. Loan payments are structured with the goal that they not exceed the monthly utility savings, so the homeowner is redistributing funds rather than adding costs. When the loan is paid, the owner pockets the full monthly savings, about 15% to 30% of his old energy bills.
  • Apply eligible rebates or incentives. (To see your area, check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.)
  • Bring in the contractor to do the work.
  • Supervise the work.
  • Handle complaints.
  • Track the energy savings.
  • Conduct engineering inspections of all large projects and sample small projects.
  • Collect and report on the community's collective energy savings.

All residents need to do is sign some paperwork, including authorization for a possible credit check, and open their doors.

"We're doing it all for you. And believe it or not, nobody's ever done that before," Morgan explains.

A big energy solution for the average homeowner
In the United States, buildings consume more energy (40%) than either transportation or industry. Of that, homes consume 55%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. When it comes to waste, homes lose an average of 20% of their energy.

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"People should think of their homes as little smokestacks, because most of that electricity comes from coal, and coal is really, really dirty," says Joel Rogers, director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, which is working on a similar energy alliance called Milwaukee Energy Efficiency (Me2), with financing tied directly to buildings instead of residents.

People may know all this. And they may know that it's far more important to act now as opposed to waiting three or five or 10 years. (It's more difficult to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere later than it is to reduce emissions now.)

But when it comes to beefing up insulation or upgrading a home heating system, people everywhere face the same obstacles:

  1. What do I do, exactly?
  2. How do I pay for it?
  3. Whom do I call to do the work?

"You can't require people to be saints to make this work," says Rogers, who's also a professor of law, political science and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "You can't put the burden on figuring it all out to the individual. You've got to fix the system of choice that they face. You've got to make them an offer they can't refuse."

For decades, energy service companies filled this role for big businesses and public buildings, such as schools and hospitals. But small buildings lacked the scale to make jobs attractive. Energy alliances resolve this by pooling customers, to draw sustainable work and competitive energy-service contracts. Now the smallest homeowner can get the same low-hassle, full-service contract once reserved for the big boys.