Community action on resource efficiency is an essential element of achieving a low-carbon, sustainable human relationship with the planet. This November, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting on behalf of the California Sustainability Alliance at the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC) conference convened by Stanford University, the California Institute for Energy and Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, where I received first-hand accounts of a wide range of exciting ideas and programs being implemented in communities across the United States.
One of these presentations was given by Sue Jamison, Residential Marketing Manager at Energy Trust of Oregon, a non-profit organization funded by Oregon energy consumers to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy across the state. Jamison’s presentation was on Solarize Portland, an innovative, community-driven program launched in 2009 to increase residential solar adoption in Southeast Portland.
Despite Portland’s deserved reputation as an environmentally-minded city, in 2008 the city was lagging in residential PV installations—just 38 were installed that year compared with 168 in San Francisco. In fact, Energy Trust had observed through its own programs that the perceived interest in residential solar did not match up with installations. Through non-profit marketing agency SmartPower, which conducted a study on market barriers in Oregon, Energy Trust found that the main issues for residential customers were upfront costs, the wide range of price quotes from contractors, and the buyer fatigue associated with a complicated, and often protracted, process of picking equipment and getting it installed.
Solarize Portland came into being as a partnership between Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition (SE Uplift) and Energy Trust, with the goal of getting more solar panels on Portland homes by addressing the key barriers identified by SmartPower. So how did this work? Several core elements created a simple, unique, and highly effective program:
- Community groups spearheading the effort and strong neighbor-to-neighbor marketing
- Tiered pricing for PV systems with a limited window for sign ups (everyone loves a sale!)
- A $2.25/watt incentive from Energy Trust coupled with state and federal tax credits
- Educational workshops in the community
- Site assessments provided for free
Other elements of the program included community selection of a contractor through a competitive bid process, clever marketing campaigns such as yard signs that read “This house is solarizing!”, and the built-in incentive for participants to recruit more of their neighbors so that everyone’s price would go down. Drawing on local knowledge, SE Uplift organized its educational workshops around activities that would be popular with neighborhood residents —such as holding workshops at a local bar—and made sure to offer at least one event per week during the 6 week enrollment period.
The results are impressive: Out of 350 homes that signed up with the program, 120 installed PV systems. That’s a more than 34% success rate, and 3 times the number of installations seen in 2008.
Even better, Energy Trust coupled this program with a pre-existing offering aimed at energy efficiency, which provided the opportunity to make some basic energy efficiency retrofits in homes that received a site assessment for the Solarize program. Steve Lacey, Director of Operations at Energy Trust, mentioned that the agency is looking to start a new program similar to Solarize Portland but for energy efficiency retrofits. Weatherize Portland, perhaps? Stay tuned…