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August 06, 2009

Albemarle Supervisors debate future of energy audit program for homeowners

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By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, August 6, 2009   

This summer, Charlottesville and Albemarle County were awarded a $500,000 grant from the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA) to launch a new service to help homeowners reduce their energy usage. The Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) will coordinate energy audits in both localities where homes would be inspected to find out if energy usage could be reduced. At least one member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors is concerned the program will not live up to its expectations.

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LEAP would make loans to homeowners to help them cover the cost of energy-saving improvements. In the long-run, the program would be sustained in part by charging interest on those loans. Homeowners would pay for the loans in part by using the savings that come with lower energy bills. The grant application claims that between 915 and 1,271 jobs would be created as much as 69,685 metric tons of carbon emissions would be eliminated in the first seven years.

Download Download the SEEA grant application

An update on LEAP was included on the Board of Supervisors’ consent agenda for their meeting on August 5, 2009. In order to satisfy SEEA grant guidelines, the Board was asked to make a public statement acknowledging their acceptance of the grant.

One issue that has cropped up is who will actually receive the $500,000 award. Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said the Blue Moon Fund has given an additional $100,000, part of which is being used to pay legal fees associated with building LEAP’s governance structure. LEAP is not yet recognized as a legal entity, and Virginia law prevents the City and the County from accepting the money directly. However, the General Assembly did grant the City of Charlottesville authorization to start the program with the passage of SB1212.

Leap-projections
This chart from the grant application projects LEAP organizers' expectations during the first seven years of operations

Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) said he wanted to know more details about LEAP’s business plan. Boyd was concerned that the County would have to hire staff to operate LEAP. Slutzky said while the County may receive grant money to pay for LEAP’s start-up costs, it is not designed to be another government program. Boyd said he needed to be convinced by looking at the numbers. Slutzky said the governance issues had to be worked yet, but that he felt the application for the SEEA set clear goals.

“The first step is to put together the analysis needed to persuade the grantors that we have a reasonable vision for how we achieve 30% to 50%  market penetration,” Slutzky said. Boyd said the plan lacked clear detail on what that actually meant. Slutzky said the plan clearly laid out that the expectation is to eventually help up to half of all households in Charlottesville and Albemarle County remodel their homes to become energy efficient. 

“The scale of the green job formation that’s associated with this initiative is to me nothing short of exciting,” Slutzky said. But Boyd remained skeptical.

“I have trouble understanding how you are going to translate a $500,000 grant into 1,500 jobs,” Boyd said. Slutzky said the 200-page application demonstrates how they will achieve that goal. Boyd wanted balance sheets projecting LEAP’s income streams before he could support moving forward.

GreenhousegasemissionsThis pie chart breaks down the sources of Greenhouse gas emissions for Charlottesville and Albemarle County for the year 2006 (Source: SEEA grant application)

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said LEAP is not a County project, and the benefits of the program will come without the use of any taxpayer funds. When Rooker called Boyd’s concern “hyper-critical,” Boyd responded that he was “hyper-cautious.”

“I’ve seen this things expand to be where they don’t create the things they say they’re going to create,” Boyd said. “I want to be sure that the plan is predicated on something we can actually achieve.” In May, Boyd voted against a resolution of support

Slutzky said the fact that this community was selected over many others in the nation is one achievement already accomplished. He said additional funding was likely to come from the U.S. Department of Energy because LEAP could be a template for other programs across the country. Rooker urged Boyd to get involved with the project to make sure it works. Slutzky said LEAP would represent a market-driven approach to solving a community problem that the Board identified as a priority when it adopted the Cool Counties initiative in December 2007.

“We have in this country taken on the commitment of achieving 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by the year 2050,” Slutzky said. “Forty percent of those greenhouse gas emissions come from existing buildings… In order to achieve that you have to have programs like we’re starting here to make it possible to retrofit substantial portions of existing housing stock with energy-efficiency technologies and have a mechanism for paying for it.”

“I hope that you’re right, but I’m not convinced of that yet,” Boyd said.

After this discussion, the Board agreed to sign a letter to the SEEA acknowledging that the County and City have been awarded the grant.

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