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Making a pitch for a Northeast Ohio Energy Alliance

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/16/11 @ 2:35pm

Paul Ettore is doing a lot of explaining these days why Northeast Ohio needs an Energy Alliance.

"We want to harness fragmented supply and demand of energy efficiency services (and) grow large scale regional markets," said Ettore who works in community based finance at Key Bank, and is a member of the 2019 Green Building group which has been working for a year to launch an 'energy alliance' like they have in Cincinnati and Boston. A Northeast Ohio Energy Alliance would cobble together the expertise, financing and walk customers through the technicalities of blower door tests and insulating attics. Their goal is to take energy efficiency aimed at the market rate (read: between low income weatherization and high net worth homeowner) to scale.

Ettore spoke this morning to the Home Repair Resource Center whose community development-by-way-of-home-repair service model has established them as a trusted voice, library and neutral venue for local contractors and DIY home remodelers on the eastside for 40 years (the nonprofit is interested in moving into energy efficiency as part of a larger sustainability agenda and understanding the Alliance's goals).

HRRC director Kathryn Ladd said energy efficiency efforts like Dominion's GoodSense, which offer home energy audits and rebates for weatherization, fail her quality control test. "A lot of the contractors don't have a good rating (from the Better Business Bureau)."

Ettore agrees that national programs like GoodSense offer easy "boilerplate" solutions for utilities to meet new Demand Side Management programs mandated in Ohio's case by a PUCO rate case. The energy alliance value proposition of quality control for the high touch transaction of energy efficiency work, he said, is what he hopes sells Dominion on the alliance as an additional 'toe in the water' program in its DSM portfolio.

Where is the Alliance in its start up, and what impact do they hope to have?

Ettore hopes a new partnership with the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance, which expects to invest $17 million from ARRA funds in the next two years on its residential market rate energy efficiency projects, will open some doors. Ettore's group submitted a $200,000 grant proposal to the Ohio Department of Development for marketing and outreach with the Cincy group, and it hopes to cement a more formal arrangement in its pitch to Cleveland area community foundations: Cincy will provide program support. The goal is for area homeowners to make needed upgrades and pay them back at low interest (tapping the county's HELP or Cleveland Restoration Society's low interest loan home repair programs) or with a new loan loss reserve for a revolving loan fund (Ettore says the Cincy group has been approached by the Keystone Home Energy Loan program in Pennsylvania about rolling up and leveraging their portfolios for a second round of funding). The second partner in the NEO Energy Alliance's pitch to the foundations-which was re-jiggered when Cleveland Foundation pushed back that a high salary executive director and the overhead of a new nonprofit wasn't palatable-is the Cleveland Housing Network which brings deep knowledge of weatherization programs. The third leg is Entrepreneurs for Sustainability, who Ettore likes for its sustainable business training and network incubation track record and because it's an existing nonprofit with a strong brand).

"Forget the national boilerplate programs, we need to build a large coalition of stakeholders if we really want to get off the dime, create a pilot and a real finance mechanism," Ettore said. "We told Dominion, we want to offer you an alternative data set."

Ettore and Enterprise Foundation Regional Director Mark McDermott are spearheading the effort. Both are big on setting metrics for the Alliance. Based on his experience with the 2019 Green Building group and its insistence to the city that it adopt GHG reduction metrics, McDermott sees impacting the region's carbon emissions as a selling point of the Alliance. In conversations with the Alliance's steering committee the proposed baseline is a 30-35% energy demand reduction per project (that pencils out to an average $4,000-6,000 investment), Ettore said. HRRC board member Susie Kaiser commented that a highly activist community like Cleveland Heights (if HRRC finds the resources to manage it) could set the bar higher on percent reductions. (That would certainly raise the subsidy needed-the Alliance model is to subsidize a portion of work). The Alliance's proposal to the foundations includes a First Suburb to pilot its program perhaps as early as this fall depending on the success of their pitch to the foundations, Ettore said. They plan to take lessons from the Cleveland Energy $aver Program which will offer $100 toward home energy audits and 25% rebates on the work (they want to see if that is enough incentive).

"We're not asking (the First Suburb selected for the pilot) for money, but we want real skin in the game from a community relations standpoint. Not just a brochure out in the lobby but organized community meetings and real impact getting the program out there."

The Alliance is looking into financing models, like Cascadia, Washington's Shorebank which has an unsecured revolving loan fund supporting an energy efficiency program that has a very low default rate. They also want to partner with groups (and cities) that have a strong track record of home weatherization. Early support came in from the Generation Foundation which pledged $35,000 in seed capital.

"If the market place could step in and do this they would. The utilities have only dipped their toes in. You have to walk the customer through and that's costlier. We knew we needed a regional collaborative. So, we have cities, small business, organized labor and the utilities at the table with us."

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