Communities in southern Maine are collaborating on a pilot program that aims to help residents overcome cost and logistical barriers to accessing climate-friendly home energy upgrades.
Five towns and two regional nonprofits received a three-year, $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program in late 2023. The budget for the program is now being finalized for launch this summer or fall.
The grant will fund AmeriCorps members to provide one-on-one energy coaching for residents. These “navigators” will help identify the best cost- and emissions-cutting retrofits for each home, and will help residents apply for a range of accompanying tax credits, rebates and other incentives. The grant also includes about $500,000 to directly offset residents’ remaining costs.
“The pilot program, as we envision it, will remove the up-front capital barrier and help homeowners navigate the process with confidence,” said Kendra Amal, the town manager in Kittery, one of the towns participating in the grant. “We expect to see a significant increase in the number of households able to make energy-reducing and cost-saving improvements to their homes through this program.”
Kittery joins the towns of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells and Ogunquit in working with Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission on the project, along with York County Community Action Corporation. SMPDC will host the AmeriCorps navigators, while the county action agency will set up a new Southern Maine Energy Fund to help pay for projects and will provide energy services staffers to oversee actual retrofits and installations.
“We’ve heard from all of our communities that home weatherization and heat pumps are really important, but they didn’t feel like they could do it themselves,” said SMPDC sustainability coordinator Karina Graeter. “(This program) provides the opportunity for these smaller communities that don’t have their own sustainability staff or their own capacity to undertake big outreach and education efforts … to try and address the energy issues that have been shown to be really important to the community.”
Cost and information barriers
Maine relies more on home heating oil than any other state, and residential emissions are the state’s top contributor to climate change after transportation. In recent years, Maine has been nationally lauded for successful efforts to incentivize efficient electric heat pumps as a replacement for oil. State heat pump and weatherization rebates can total thousands of dollars per project, especially for lower-income people, and federal tax credits can offer thousands more.
But even hefty incentives may not cover everything, and energy bill savings from these upgrades can take months or years to materialize — meaning many people still can’t afford remaining project costs, said Amal and Graeter.
During Kittery’s climate action planning process, the town discovered that many residents weren’t taking advantage of state energy rebates, Amal said. And costs were not the only problem; Amal said residents also cited “the confusing and often rigid process required to qualify” for incentives as another reason they chose not to pursue home efficiency or electrification work.
“There are so many great incentives out there, but they’re always sort of changing depending on what funding is available, you know, who’s running the program,” said Graeter. “Helping people navigate that requires a certain amount of skill and knowledge.”
The program’s navigators will be trained to help residents make the most of these complex offerings, she said.
The grant proposal envisions connecting with interested residents through whatever way they reach out to a participating group, whether it’s via the county agency or a town. Residents of any income would be paired with a navigator, who would answer their questions, assess their needs and provide technical assistance on designing a project with the greatest energy savings impact.
For low- and moderate-income families, the program would also provide instant rebates to offset upfront project costs. The county agency’s energy technicians would do the actual installation work on the project and follow up on other assistance options, including tax credits as needed.
Filling gaps at a regional scale
In the next six months of setting up the program, Graeter said her cohort plans to seek inspiration from other regional groups — like the county agency partnering on the grant, or WindowDressers, which builds heat-saving window inserts for low-income people — to design a community engagement approach that will reach the most people.
“The idea is to have a ‘no wrong path’ sort of option for people; meeting people where they’re at in terms of their energy needs, and figuring out what assistance they need most,” she said.
The participating towns have been working toward this program for years, since initially collaborating to fund Graeter’s position at SMPDC, Graeter said. This regional approach lets them learn from each other and build on shared progress rather than duplicating effort, she said.
Amal noted that the pilot nature of the program also aims to help officials evaluate impact and potentially scale up similar efforts elsewhere in the state.
Graeter stressed that the grant doesn’t seek to replace federal energy tax credits or existing state programs offered by Efficiency Maine, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees Maine’s energy incentives.
“Our focus is really to increase access to those programs, and then provide some additional financial support to help bridge the gap between current incentives and the true cost of these upgrades, which is always shifting and changing,” she said.