Energy aid awaits Phoenix light-rail areas

courtesy of by Ryan Randazzo – Sept. 28, 2011
The Arizona Republic


Phoenix is having a hard time giving away stimulus money to those who live along the light rail to make their homes more energy efficient, although businesses have been snapping up the funds.

The city was awarded a $25 million grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus, and has spent only about $7.78 million of that as of Sept. 23, according to the Energy Department records. The money must be spent by June 2013.

Several businesses, from small barbershops to large commercial buildings, have taken advantage of the money, but getting homeowners to participate has been more difficult, even with Arizona State University students knocking on doors to spread information about the offer, officials said.

“The residential side has been a little slow, but that is not unusual,” said Carolyn Bristo, Phoenix’s sustainability coordinator overseeing the project.

Even though the project faces a deadline, Bristo said she is not worried.

“It will get spent,” she said.

People who live within a half mile of the rail from Central Avenue and Camelback Road to 44th and Washington streets qualify for the money.

Arizona Public Service Co. and Salt River Project offer $99 home-energy audits, where a contractor performs an in-depth analysis to determine the best way to save electricity.

People in the corridor have to pay up-front for that audit, but get a full rebate.

Then the Energize Phoenix program will match efficiency rebates from APS, which serves the area, so that cooling-system upgrades, duct repairs, attic insulation, shade screens and other repairs are mostly paid for.

Bristo said that in many cases, homeowners can get all of their repairs for free with the combination of APS and stimulus money.

Even if homeowners don’t want to get any of the repairs that are suggested in the home-energy audit, they can get the rebate for the $99 energy audit, although they have to pay for it up-front, spokesman Michael Hammett said.

An update from the city showed that just two single-family homes have participated in the program, and four apartment buildings are participating.

More than 130 businesses have applied for funds, city reports say.

But a set amount of money is reserved for homeowners and a set amount for businesses, in addition to money to fund research and loans to help pay for some of the upgrades. So there is not a concern that businesses will use all of the money intended for homeowners.

The program aims to upgrade 2,000 homes and 30 million square feet of business space.

Nibblers Catering owner David Eicher got about $4,000 worth of new lights for his business through the program. He said he was approached by one of the many contractors who are certified to work for the program, and that ATS Electric handled all of the applications and paperwork for him.

“It was totally seamless on my end,” Eicher said. “I have more-efficient lighting and when they finished, my kitchen was even brighter.”

His work was finished just a couple months ago, and with high electricity bills in summer from running air-conditioners in the building, he isn’t sure yet how much money the project saves him each month.

Eicher said he was willing to participate to save money on his business, but he understands why it might be more difficult to convince homeowners to participate.

“I bet people are skeptical of it being an outlay from their pocket,” he said. “Sometimes it sounds too good to be true. I was willing to do it even if I had to pay for some of it.”

He said he asked if his Phoenix home was in the right area to participate, but he is just outside the corridor.

Bristo said the program could be altered to meet the terms of the federal grant, and that could include increasing the project boundaries to raise participation. In addition to the money reserved for homeowners and businesses, there is money to fund research and loans to help pay for upgrades.

Part of the money pays for a partnership with the Arizona State University Global Institute of Sustainability, which will monitor some of the participating buildings to determine how much energy they save once the repairs are made or new appliances are installed.

Students from the school have been canvassing the corridor, but participation hasn’t taken off, Bristo said.

The grant also includes money for marketing and advertising. Some ads have been placed at light-rail stations, and the program is likely to place ads in community newsletters to boost participation as well.

Phoenix has spent about 31 percent of its funds for the program, which is comparable with the dozens of other municipalities getting similar BetterBuildings grants from the stimulus, federal reports say.

The similarly populated city of Philadelphia has spent $17 million, or 68 percent, of its $25 million grant.

Los Angeles County has spent about 20 percent of the $30 million grant.

Seattle has spent about 38 percent of its $20 million grant.

San Antonio has spent less than 10 percent of its $10 million grant.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is traveling to Washington today to tell Energy Secretary Steven Chu how well the stimulus money for energy projects in the city is working.

“I think we’ve done this better than any other city,” Gordon said Tuesday.

“I want to let the secretary know how the city of Phoenix has been creating jobs and using the (stimulus) money as intended.”

He also will discuss the Solar Phoenix program, which is helping about 445 Phoenix residents put solar panels on their homes with financing from National Bank of Arizona and loans that are partially backed by the city’s Industrial Development Authority.

“Hopefully, this serves as a national model,” Gordon said.

Gordon said that touting the environmental successes of Phoenix will lay the groundwork for future projects that could receive federal assistance, just as the city’s reputation helped land the efficiency grant.

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