Chapel Hill may cut WISE funding for energy improvements

A Chapel Hill program to encourage energy efficiency is set to provide less funding — but wider availability — than during its first stage after tonight’s Town Council meeting.

Chapel Hill launched the Worthwhile Investments Save Energy (WISE) program, which helps subsidize homeowners’ energy efficiency improvements, in March 2011 using a $455,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

So far, nearly 100 homes in Chapel Hill have received energy assessments and 51 of those homes have committed to subsidized improvements using the program.

After the large response, the town could modify the program to allow more homes to benefit.

The council might approve a resolution that would set the subsidy homeowners can receive for improvements 5 to 10 percentage points lower than in the program’s first phase.

The measure would also reduce the maximum amount the town will pay out to homeowners from $5,000 in the first stage to $1,500 in the second.

Program benefits for efficiency

To participate in the WISE program, a homeowner must have an energy audit to find how to best improve efficiency. If those improvements will decrease the home’s electricity bill by 15 percent, the homeowner can receive subsidies to pursue them on a first-come basis.

Phase one of the program offers a 50 percent subsidy for duct systems and insulation improvements and a 25 percent subsidy for improvements to heating, air conditioning, appliances, lighting and hot water heaters.

Those numbers could decrease to 40 and 20 percent for phase two.

“Our list consists of those measures that give the best bang for the buck,” said John Richardson, sustainability officer for the town of Chapel Hill.

Rainer Dammers, a Southern Village homeowner, installed a $23,670 solar energy system and will pay only $6,214 after incentives from federal, state and local governments.

Dammers was also able to regain 50 percent of the cost for fixing leaky ducts and insulation gaps through WISE program rebates.

“A 50 percent subsidy is quite significant. You can do more than otherwise you would have wanted to do all by yourself and get better results,” Dammers said.

Not the only decreasing rebate

Before the introduction of the WISE program, Dammers made efficiency upgrades, including lighting and window improvements, with help from federal and state rebates.

But Tom Simchak, senior research associate at Washington, D.C. based Alliance to Save Energy, said federal tax credits for items like energy-saving insulation, doors and windows might expire at the end of the year.

“Right now Congress is thinking about other things,” he said. “There’s a whole lot more action going on at the state and local level.”

Dammers said he would have waited for solar systems to be more cost effective, but was worried that government rebates might disappear.

“What made my decision was concern with the political shift and the financial struggles on the federal and state levels.”

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