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Austin Energy updates multifamily weatherization program

Monday, April 22, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Despite spending less than ever on multifamily weatherization and tightening restrictions on its multifamily weatherization rebate program, Austin Energy claims to be on track to meet the city’s energy efficiency goals while continuing to lower energy bills for its customers.

Debbie Kimberly, an Austin Energy vice president, told the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee on Wednesday that the utility is making this possible with an innovation to its multifamily rebate pilot program as well as a new contract with a “multifamily energy efficiency implementer,” who will manage contractors on AE’s behalf.

AE’s Direct Install Multifamily Weatherization Assistance Program covers the full cost of installation for a number of energy saving measures at properties where at least 30 percent of residents are low-income. Kimberly said the pilot program has been a success, though some barriers, like lack of access to residents’ financial information, have limited the program’s reach.

Without getting the explicit approval of Council, Kimberly said the utility decided to, “without sounding cute, go big or go home” by eliminating income as a qualification for the rebate program and focusing instead on a property’s suitability for weatherization. Under this revision, any property at least 10 years of age could be eligible for the 100 percent rebate, regardless of the income of its tenants.

With Council Member Kathie Tovo expressing her surprise at the news, Kimberly said the issue had been discussed at UOC last November during a semiannual report that concluded the rebate pilot program was not “proving the thesis” regarding affordability, showing little evidence that the energy efficiency rebates had contributed to lower rents.

Savings to tenants come mostly from reductions to monthly energy bills, which property owners in general have little incentive to lower in Austin’s tight rental market. But when property managers do pursue the rebate program, residents can save hundreds of dollars per year.

One multifamily property manager told UOC in March that estimates indicate a 13 percent reduction to monthly electric bills for each of the property’s 308 units if the utility approves the property owner’s application.

While doing away with the low-income requirement, Kimberly said the new program is still designed to reach predominantly low- and moderate-income residents.

Council Member Greg Casar worried the program would be overwhelmed by the number of properties without income restrictions that would now qualify and could ultimately lose sight of affordability concerns for low-income residents.

Prioritizing properties going forward is not meant to be a “spread it like peanut butter” situation, Kimberly clarified. The utility is on track to close its discussions with bidders for its third-party implementer early next week. Beginning in October, the new position will be helping target properties with residents most impacted by energy costs.

In the meantime, Kimberly said the utility plans to start with a focused outreach to low-income census tracts as soon as July, targeting those buildings currently using the most energy per square foot.

The 10-year age requirement may open up the list of potential candidates for the 100 percent rebate overall, but also unnecessarily excludes a number of energy-inefficient properties, Tim Arndt, head of development for 360 Energy Savers, told UOC at its March 27 meeting.

According to Arndt, this is one of several recent changes to the program’s restrictions that end up keeping property owners from making much-needed improvements to their units by preventing them from applying for or receiving the rebate.

Last year, Arndt said, “one affordable community was verified with duct leakage of 50 percent, but was denied (entry into the program) because it was built five years earlier. … Those residents will be wasting energy for the next five years.”

Even if the utility is willing to consider newer buildings for the rebate on an individual basis, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said such restrictions surely prevent property owners from applying regardless of the efficiency of their units.

Kimberly told UOC that there is no effort to keep anyone from participating in the program. She stressed the need to ensure safety by prohibiting participation by properties listed as repeat offenders for outstanding code violations and to make sure there is no misuse of funds in case of an audit.

Rather than limiting the weatherization program, Kimberly said the new version will be expanded to perform HVAC tune-ups, plenum remediation (keeping air from escaping out of the space between the ceiling and the floor above), cover the cost of the city’s Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure inspection up to $2,500, and pay $150 of installation costs for smart thermostats, which she said results in roughly a 5 percent energy savings.

Combined, Kimberly said, these efforts will help the utility keep lowering bills for moderate- and low-income customers while still meeting its cost-effectiveness targets, and, “not coincidentally,” help achieve Council-mandated targets.

Photo by U.S. Department of Energy.

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