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Program offers homeowners cash rebates for energy-efficiency upgrades

on June 7, 2011

Bay Area residents may soon begin to see ads for a new program that allows homeowners to better insulate their houses while getting a considerable of rebate for doing the upgrade. After an 11-month pilot program, the full version of Energy Upgrade California—a statewide effort to promote energy efficiency—is now going full throttle.

Homeowners who hire participating contractors to retrofit their houses as part of the Energy Upgrade California program are eligible for a reimbursement of up to $4,000. The rebate is administered by utility companies, which for Bay Area residents is the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. According to the program’s website, the major source of its funding are federal stimulus funds and California utility ratepayers. Rebates are provided on a first-come, first-served basis, until the program funds are no longer available. The processing of the rebate is managed by Build it Green, an Oakland-based non-profit which receives and approves rebate requests from contractors before sending them to PG&E.

To get started, people can visit the program’s website to choose from two upgrade packages, the basic and the advanced. The basic upgrade includes sealing wall cracks, insulating hot water pipes and fixing leaky ducts. This package will improve the house’s energy performance by up to ten percent and the customer can get as much as $1,000 as a rebate.

The advanced package will provide a detailed energy assessment and then a customized solution, which usually includes insulating walls and ceilings, upgrading the heating and cooling systems and installing energy-efficient windows. The rebate is based on the amount of energy the fixes are expected to save and varies from $1,500 to $4,000. The initial project cost of a basic package ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 while an advanced upgrade can cost up $20,000.

More contractors are now involved in the full program than there were last summer when the pilot program began, and the program also has a new administrator. For the consumers, however, it has no difference from the pilot version, said Ben Thompson, a building analyst for Smart Builders, one of the numerous contractors working in partnership with the program. “Energy efficiency in buildings is much more cost-effective [even] than solar, it has a huge priority at the federal and the state level,” Thompson said.

Tamara Nicoloff, a Temescal resident and program participant, completed an advanced upgrade for her 1920s craftsman bungalow last fall and received a $3,500 rebate from the $5,000 project. “My house was always cold,” Nicoloff said, adding that after the upgrade it’s much warmer inside. “Even when the heater was on it wasn’t really getting the drafts,” she said.

James Jirn had the same coldness problem in his 1915 house in Glenview. Jirn said after his home’s upgrade, which was completed a few weeks ago, he instantly felt improvement in the indoor temperature and air circulation. “The upgrades have made a big difference and has allowed us to reduce our furnace usage,” Jirn said.

Although upgrading a home’s energy efficiency can save residents an estimated $150 to $450 a year on their utility bills, Thompson said that an upgrade also improves the airflow inside the homes. “Don’t just look at it as dollar savings, look at it as an increase of comfort,” he said.

One way of improving airflow is to stop leaks. Bruce Mast, programs director for Build It Green, said that to determine the air leakage of a house, contractors use a big fan set up in the doorway to suck the air out of the house. After depressurizing the house to a certain level, they measure the power that the fan has to use to maintain the pressure. Finally, with the data collected, modeling software is used to calculate how much energy the house is leaking.

With positive feedback from the participants in the pilot program, supporters hope the full version of Energy Upgrade California will both help conserve energy and create jobs. “Our goal with PG&E is to process rebates for 15,000 home improvements around northern California, ” said Mast, who believes that the program is bringing more jobs to the region. “A whole bunch of contractors that had been working in the building trades for years are right now basically unemployed,” Mast added. “We are trying to get more of those back to work.”

Katie Romans, a spokesperson for PG&E, said the pilot program included 110 contractors and more than 350 retrofits have been completed, generating more than 300 jobs along the way.

Smart Builders crew blowing fiberglass insulation into an attic. Photo courtesy Smart Builders Inc.


  1. chris on June 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I had my West Berkeley home insulated through this program. They insulated the roof and walls, sealed ducting, and a myriad of other little details. Bid price was a lil over $6k. With PG&E and Berkeley rebates I paid a little under $2k.

    My house is now significantly quieter and the heat runs 1/3 as often.

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