A program tasked with making Kansas homes and small businesses more energy efficient used less than one-tenth of the stimulus money available to it during its first year. Efficiency Kansas, run through the Kansas Corporation Commission, spent just $285,416.25 to help improve energy efficiency in 42 projects, at an average cost of $6,800.
It has $34 million to distribute by 2012.
Other energy efficiency programs across the nation funded with stimulus money have drawn criticism for being slow to get going.
A spokeswoman says Efficiency Kansas is making progress.
This week it started offering a rebate that will allow applicants to pay $100 for a required energy audit instead of $300 or more.
The Kansas program takes a "whole house" approach to reducing energy cost, offering low-interest loans to people interested in making their houses more efficient.
Applicants are required to get an energy audit that outlines improvements they need to make.
One year ago, fewer than 10 energy auditors advertised their services in Kansas. Now there are 54, said Cara Sloan-Ramos, spokeswoman for the Kansas Corporation Commission.
She counts that as a sign of success.
"The main goal was to transform the way people look at the whole-house aspect of energy efficiency," she said.
The initial energy audit typically costs between $300 to $600, which caused some people to balk and resulted in the rebate program to lower the cost to $100.
Wichita-based energy auditor Mike Watson said he thought reducing the cost of the audit would help attract more people. He owns Watson Heating and Cooling, and took the course to be an energy auditor when the program began.
"It's slow getting started right now, but I think it will pick up. I think it is going to be a good program," he said "The $100 audit will make a difference in the participation for it."
The audits take three to four hours and result in a list of recommendations — from adding insulation to crawl spaces and putting caulk around windows and doors to sealing leaks in new furnace or air conditioning systems, he said.
The recommendations are prioritized and come with an estimate of how much will be saved by each project, Watson said.
The loan can cover all of the list, but the projects have to be done in order of priority, he said. So homeowners seeking a new furnace might also have to caulk around windows, seal off a crawl space and insulate parts of their house first to get the low-interest loan.
Some people that he has done the audits for have opted to take care of the fixes on their own and not rely on the low-interest loan, he said.
Getting an audit
Tuesday, John and Kathy Felter took advantage of the less expensive audit and had Watson examine their Wichita home for energy leaks.
"We waited three weeks to have it done just so we could take advantage of the reduced cost," John said.
When they moved in four years ago, the couple had replaced the original windows with new Energy Star windows. But they hadn't seen much of a difference in their utility bills, Kathy said. The four-bedroom house was built in 1986.
Kathy is a real estate agent. She said clients often ask about utility bills in houses they look at. She noticed that her house consistently had much higher bills than comparable homes, she said.
"I just figure that it has to be going someplace," she said.
The Felters said they were waiting to see what improvements the audit suggested before deciding if they would apply for a loan through the program.
Qualifying for loan
Homeowners can get loans of up to $20,000; small businesses are eligible for loans of up to $30,000.
Mike Welli, vice president of marketing for Mid American Credit Union based in Wichita, one of the lenders working with the program, said the credit union has had several inquiries but no one has taken out a loan — which is capped at a fixed rate of 4 percent for up to 15 years.
The loan program has strict standards to qualify. People need to have at least 20 percent equity in their house and have very good credit ratings, Welli said.
"That bumps a lot of people out — they just don't qualify," he said.
Some people also don't realize that the loan is a second mortgage on their house, and they back out, he said.
The state has a separate weatherization program for low-income residents.
The program is a good concept, but some of the details might limit participation, some say.
"I think it is a great concept to look at whole-house energy efficiency and provide access to low-interest money to help people out," said Dave Springe, consumer counsel with the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board.
But the up-front cost for participants is a challenge, he said.
"A lot of middle-class people like me, we're thankful to have a job and we don't have gobs of money in the bank and our houses could use improvement but we aren't going to take it on at this time," he said.
Another problem is requiring people to make all improvements in prioritized order. Applicants might save money in the long run, but if they only need a furnace, they might not want to make other improvements — such as reinsulating their house — to get the program money, he said.
The program also is collaborating with utility companies to allow people to access the loan money without going through a bank, said Sloan-Ramos.
For Hays-based utility co-op Midwest Energy Inc., that has meant expanding a program first started in 2007 called How$mart.
"It helps pay for the energy efficiency up front and have it paid back over time," said Michael Volker, director of regulatory and energy services with the co-op.
Since working with Efficiency Kansas, How$mart has helped about 30 Midwest Energy customers access the stimulus money.
Westar Energy has an energy efficiency proposal, SimpleSavings Program, before the KCC. If it is approved, the utility will become a partner in Efficiency Kansas. The next hearings on the plan will be Sept. 22 in Topeka and Sept. 23 in Wichita.