A plan to create jobs and help Charleston residents finance energy efficiency improvements took a significant step forward on Tuesday.

The city's Sustainability Committee, which was created in response to skepticism about the initiative, recommended that City Council approve a grant-funded $400,000 contract with Charlotte-based Abundant Power to get the program running.

The positive vote came after committee members were assured no city funds would be used, and the city would not be otherwise responsible for any home-improvement loans.

"The city's role is essentially to facilitate ... the creation of a private program to do the work," said Tim Keane, director of the city's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.

Grants from private foundations and a federal program would fund the contract. Abundant Power would arrange for private financing from lenders who could profit from interest on the resulting loans.

The idea is that city residents could soon turn to the "CharlestonSAVES" program to learn how to improve a building's efficiency, get an energy audit, contract for work to be performed and borrow the money needed.

Loan payments would be tailored to match energy savings, so that the borrowers would have no out-of-pocket costs.

If City Council approves the contract at a meeting next week, the program could be operating in about six months, according to city officials and Lawrence Ostema, managing partner with Abundant Power.

The initial goal is to finance at least $2.5 million in upgrades for 250 or more buildings over three years.

Councilman Gary White, the most vocal skeptic of the initiative and a member of the Sustainability Committee, questioned why the city needs to be involved at all.

Keane said the private and federal grants funding the start-up of the program are not available to private companies.

"We're the conduit for the money because you need a public institution to accept the grants," he said.

The city plans to use a $250,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and $232,000 in federal grants for energy efficiency to fund the Abundant Power contract, related expenses and a temporary city grant-writing position.

The city also has been approved for $500,000 in federal funding through the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, which could be used to finance CharlestonSAVES loans.

"There's no risk to the city," Mayor Joe Riley said.

If successful, the program holds the promise of not only helping city residents making financially painless efficiency improvements, but also creating "green" jobs and reducing climate-changing pollution.

The committee voted 8-2 to recommend the Abundant Power contract to City Council, with White and Jim Davis voting no. Davis, who was representing the Home Builders Association and the Trident Board of Realtors, made no comments during the meeting to explain his opposition.

Supporting the recommendation were Riley, council members William Dudley Gregorie, Louis Waring and Kathleen Wilson, and representatives from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce (Kenneth Canty), South Carolina Electric & Gas (Danny Kassis) and the State Ports Authority (Barbara Melvin). Councilman Tim Mallard was absent.