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Grant to boost city's green goals

  • Updated

Charleston has been working on a plan to help residents finance energy-saving home improvements, and also create green jobs, and those goals just received some significant financial support.

The city has been approved fora $250,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant and $500,000 in federal funding through the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, with the potential for up to $1 million more in each of the next two years.

Mayor Joe Riley said the funding should help with "ramping up the retrofitting of America's homes and buildings," but it's unclear if City Council members who have given his efficiency loan plan a chilly reception will be swayed.

While there are some complicated details to resolve with the city's loan plan, the key concept behind it is this: Make loan money available to residents for energy efficiency improvements, and let them pay it back as a surcharge on their city water bills.

Residents would get advice on the most cost-effective upgrades, referrals to contractors and payments tailored to roughly match the savings from the improvements so that there's no out-of-pocket cost.

In theory, jobs would be created, energy saved, the environment benefits and residents get more comfortable homes with lower power bills.

State and federal energy officials discussed the grant funding at City Hall on Tuesday with Riley and others, including representatives of the Coastal Conservation League, Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance and the Sustainability Institute.

The idea is that the city would use the $250,000 grant to hire Abundant Power, a Charlotte company that could help design the loan program and attract private capital. Once the program's up and running, the $500,000 in federal funding could be used for incentives and rebates to reduce the cost of energy improvements.

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"We expect to see homes weatherized this year," Gil Sperling, senior advisor to the assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, said during the meeting at City Hall.

Sperling said the federal government has been looking for ways to tap financial markets to help homeowners afford energy improvements. "Unfortunately, if homeowners have money in their pockets, they're more likely to spend it on granite countertops," he said.

Some cities have financed similar programs from their own budgets, creating revolving funds that make new loans as old ones are paid off. Charleston's goal is more ambitious, calling for a program that would attract private financing to create a large pool of loan money.

The problem some City Council members have had with the concept is the city's potential involvement in the process.

Council members don't want the city to be the borrower, lender or guarantor of the funds, and there's been enough opposition that council nearly blocked the Riley administration from even applying for the $250,000 foundation grant.

"If anything, this raises more concerns," said Councilman Gary White, after learning of the half-million in federal dollars promised to Charleston.

White, a banker, doesn't want the city to bear any risk for loans that might not get repaid, and doesn't want the city to borrow funds for the program.

Riley has said repeatedly that nothing will be done without the approval of City Council. The next big test should come June 8, when council's Sustainability Committee -- made up of council members and representatives of business groups -- will consider whether to recommend accepting the $250,000 foundation grant and hiring Abundant Power.

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