Local Energy Alliance Program

When the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County proposed the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) in 2009, there were no utility-sponsored Home Performance with Energy Star programs in Virginia. LEAP was the state’s first residential energy efficiency program, and its mission was to revitalize communities, create jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and encourage whole-house energy retrofits.

In July 2009 the city and county sought and won a $500,000 grant from the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA) to create a community-based program to facilitate energy efficiency at scale. The director of the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy arranged funding for the city and county to develop a statewide nonprofit alliance for energy efficiency. Combining grants from SEEA, local government agencies, and other foundations, LEAP was able to secure more than $3 million in its first three years. By continuing to engage stakeholders, the program has positioned itself to outlast the federal stimulus funding it received in 2009.

In July 2010 the organization leveraged grant funding to offer cash rebates and interest-rate buy-downs to 0% APR loans to finance whole-house retrofits that meet the Home Performance with Energy Star standard. Over the past 2 years, LEAP has trained a network of 25 contractors in sustainable building practices and materials, enabling them to complete Home Performance with Energy Star projects for participating homeowners.

A year into the program, it became clear that most homeowners were interested only in single-measure improvements. LEAP wanted to alter that perception, so it began to educate homeowners on the cost and energy-saving benefits of a whole-house approach to energy efficiency.

In spring 2011 LEAP created the Better Basics program to achieve deeper market penetration, completing 525 Home Performance with Energy Star jobs in just over a year. Better Basics includes a walk-through, home energy review, and a cash rebate for an insulation upgrade with air sealing or an HVAC replacement with duct sealing, with a projected 15% efficiency improvement. In 2012 a strategic partnership with the City of Charlottesville and a local housing rehabilitation nonprofit enabled LEAP to launch a version of the Assisted Home Performance with Energy Star program, another grant-based program offering whole-house improvements to 76 income-qualified homeowners, many of them seniors.

In addition to low-income residents, LEAP successfully engaged the local real estate community. Partnering with Earth Advantage Institute, an organization that brings energy-efficient construction practices to market, LEAP certified real estate professionals in green home appraisal, making Virginia one of four states to offer such training. This training led local real estate professionals to modify the Multiple Listing Service to feature the Home Performance with Energy Star designation.

“We’ve been recognized by the Department of Energy and the state energy office as one of the few organizations that has real potential to be self-sustaining,” Fore said. Over the course of 3 years, LEAP has completed 860 retrofits, 347 of which were Home Performance with Energy Star jobs. Currently there are 95 customers in the process of completing improvements. Creative revenue-generating models, such as monetizing realized energy savings and extending services to customers of Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, the largest power provider in the state, are in the works.

Now, as LEAP celebrates its one-thousandth retrofit, a program that began as a community mission to expand energy efficiency locally has gained momentum in Washington, DC. Last year Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, made a personal visit to Charlottesville to meet with LEAP’s staff and community partners. “The leadership demonstrated by LEAP, the City of Charlottesville, and the State of Virginia,” she said, “will help to develop and support the clean energy innovators of the future.”