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Posted: September 23, 2013

Mixed forecast: Clean energy braces for funding cuts

Will local sustainability programs remain sustainable once federal dollars disappear?

Jamie Siebrase

About $278 million has been invested in Solar Rewards alone. Of Xcel’s 1.3 million customers, Stutz estimates about 15,000 have installed solar or wind systems since 2006. As of April 2013, Xcel had about 161 megawatts on-site in its system. Demand has largely been residential, Stutz said.

Two educational programs – Boulder’s EnergySmart and Denver’s Energy Challenge – were created with a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy distributed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to expand energy efficiency services to local residents and businesses.

EnergySmart, launched in January 2011, provides energy advising and financial assistance to Boulder households and businesses by helping constituents identify, prioritize and implement efficiency projects.

As of this July, EnergySmart provided services to 2,776 businesses, gave $1.6 million worth of rebates and facilitated 743 energy efficiency upgrades.

EnergySmart leveraged federal grant seed funding to encourage private investment in energy efficiency. Every $1 spent by EnergySmart in the form of rebates corresponds to roughly $6 invested in the community in efficiency upgrades.

On June 10, EnergySmart launched a new round of rebates that promote the purchase and installation of eligible high-efficiency equipment. Some $495,000 has been allocated for the commercial rebate program with funding made possible by Boulder County and the City of Boulder Climate Action Plan (CAP) tax. Commercial and institutional properties within Boulder County that install eligible retrofit measures between June 10 and Dec. 31, or until funds run out, are eligible.

The City and County of Denver was a sub-recipient of the aforementioned $25 million federal grant and used its roughly $4 million to create the Denver Energy Challenge. Some 1,260 local businesses have participated since 2010.

“Grant funds from the DOE will run out in August of this year,” says Program Administrator Julie Carlton. The Department of Environmental Health will continue to fund the business side of the program, which is merging into Certifiably Green Denver. 

“When we first started out, we really scaled up and targeted businesses,” Carlton says. “Obviously we won’t have these same funds.” Still, the program’s outlook is bright.

“Demand is there to reduce operating costs and also to receive recognition as a green business,” Carlton says, explaining that participating businesses can become “Certified Green” once certain criteria are met. The organization maintains a list of green businesses online for consumer use.

What’s more, Certifiably Green Denver has teamed with Elevations Credit to offer customers low-interest (starting at 3.75 percent for businesses), penalty-free energy loans. “Our loans are packaged nicely with no-cost energy advising from the Denver Energy Challenge to ensure the upgrades you choose make sense for your business,” says Residential Program Administrator Elizabeth Babcock.

Low-interest loans may be one way to offset the effects of decreased federal funds. But energy lending, like government subsidies, isn’t set in stone.

In March 2012, panel leasing company SolarCity launched the Home Energy Loan program for upgrades in residential communities and small businesses, providing up to $5,000 for qualifying applicants. The company, however, is no longer financing and self-performing upgrades. Jonathon Bass, senior director of communications, says instead “a network of partners has been created for that purpose.”

Wind, too, had been a victim of capricious federal funding. While international emerging markets like Africa and Latin America have grown, the U.S. wind industry has faced obstacles. “Uncertainty on a federal level has produced caution,” Prestiege says. “It would be nice if Congress could provide some long-term stability on tax policy.”

The wind energy’s federal Vital Production Tax Credit, which was set to expire at the end of 2012, was extended for one year to benefit participating companies. The program, supported by government grant money, will apply to projects started in 2013 but not operational until 2014 and saves 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of wind energy produced over the first 10 years of service.

As doubts about the extension escalated, a number of companies trimmed their work force in response to a market slowdown in wind turbine orders. However, agencies such as the DOE remain committed to Colorado, evidenced by the recent plan to expand the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s 305-acre National Wind Technology Center just south of Boulder.

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Jamie Siebrase is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

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