Friends and Neighbors for Sustainability

PUSH Green, a community-based energy efficiency program funded by PUSH Buffalo and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), is working full-steam ahead on expanding its Friends and Neighbors program throughout the city. This program encourages homeowners to band together with others in their neighborhood in seeking energy efficient upgrades, thus creating a community-wide movement towards sustainable housing.  
“We designed PUSH Green Friends and Neighbors because we wanted to tackle the big issues that energy efficiency could, such as lowering energy burdens, creating jobs and reducing our carbon footprint,” said Kate Howard, program manager at PUSH Green. “We knew we needed to scale up and hold direct connections between getting our energy efficiency program up and creating jobs”
The concept behind Friends and Neighbors is simple: get a group of homeowners who all want to make their homes more energy efficient, bundle them to a contractor in the program, and give them a discount on their renovations based on the number of homes involved. The more homeowners who get on board, the better the price. “The main benefit is that homeowners get a discount of 5-10 percent,” said Howard. “Five homeowners will get five percent, and as long as three of the original five move forward with work, then the discounts are applied.” Six homes, six percent…and so on up to 10 homeowners at 10 percent. More homes being upgraded leads to more work for contractors, more jobs for our community, and progress toward making Buffalo a more sustainable place to live.

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The process starts when interested homeowners apply for the program through PUSH Green, where they meet with a community energy advocate who will prescreen them for eligibility and financing. After the group of friends and neighbors completes enrollment, a comprehensive home energy assessment will be completed to determine what efficiency upgrades are necessary. Once given the go-ahead, PUSH Green will contract the bundle of homeowners out to one of their contractors to tackle the projects. 
According to Howard, this aggregation model has numerous benefits to the contractors, the homeowners and the community as a whole. “The contractors are able to scale up their business and send one truck out to multiple jobs. We’re partnering with minority and women-owned small businesses, and 60 percent of the work has to be done by local and targeted hires,” she said. “NYSERDA created an addendum to the contract to be part of the Friends and Neighbors program which holds contractors to project quality standards and requires them to hire on family sustaining wages.”
The Friends and Neighbors program currently works with a set of eight contractors who have been approved by NYSERDA and are assigned projects on a rotating basis. PUSH Green is also working to recruit people into training programs, specifically those in low-income neighborhoods, women, minorities, and those who have been disconnected from employment, to learn the skills to become involved in this program and give them an opportunity for career advancement. According to Howard, PUSH has launched five new hires amongst the eight contractors in the program.
“The other big benefit of this program is that homeowners have a PUSH Green energy advocate with them every step of the way to ensure they have help with financial paperwork, interpreting contractors, etc.,” Howard said. “It’s really like having a liaison to the contractors and an extra layer of support.” These energy advocates, like the contractors, are accredited by the Building Performance Institute. “We’re really knowledgeable about how homes work and about building science,” she added. “Being there for the homeowner makes a really big difference.”

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The contractors utilize a whole house perspective when they draw up the plans, finding ways to maximize efficiency and the general health and safety of your home, while keeping the plans cost effective. According to Howard, typical upgrades cover insulating the walls, attic, basement, and rim joists, making heating equipment energy efficient, replacing old appliances, and looking for carbon dioxide and gas leaks. “We’ve also created a shorter time project,” Howard added. “Solo projects could take 180 days; Friends and Neighbors is a lot more streamlined–closer to 100 days–so contractors have to move a little more quickly.”
Once the work is completed, homeowners can pay for the upgrades in monthly installments on their energy bill. “Anyone who gets an initial energy audit will get a report with projected savings,” Howard said. “On Bill repayment uses that projection and makes a payment plan using the 1/12th rule, where your monthly payment can’t be more than 1/12 of your savings. It’s then attached as a line item on your utility bill.” 
“New York State is the first state to have the On Bill Recovery program,” Howard added. “This means that our state is really a leader in getting energy efficiency work done, and in a way that allows people who wouldn’t traditionally be able to get improvements done because they couldn’t pay out of pocket or get assistance.” The savings for each household is different, but on average homeowners see up to 20-30 percent in savings, or an average of about $700 per year according to NYSERDA’s projections.
There is no income requirement to participate in the Friends and Neighbors program, although it is targeted towards those in the moderate-income range. “Far too often, middle class families fall through the cracks when it comes to finding programs to help them with ever-increasing energy costs,” said Councilmember Michael LoCurto, PUSH’s partner in the Delaware District. “PUSH Green helps fill that gap, and stays to help homeowners every step of the way. I am so pleased that we will be able to have them work with my constituents in North Buffalo.”
The program target area currently encompasses 27 zip codes throughout and around the city of Buffalo, including suburbs from Tonawanda to West Seneca. Any homeowner in those target areas can be bundled into a contract. “We would like to get 300 houses upgraded in the next year,” Howard said. “Our big picture goal is to improve communities through energy efficiency, to create jobs, and to make our homes more comfortable.”
To learn more about the Friends and Neighbors program or to apply, visit PUSH Green’s website at www.pushgreenwny.org or call (716) 886-1780. 
Lead photo: PUSH Green staff and Friends & Neighbors contractors the day of the lottery
to determine the order in which jobs would be assigned. 

Second photo: An energy efficiency training held at New Buffalo Impact facility and sponsored in part by LiUNA. 

Third photo: Showcases a PUSH Green Friends and Neighbors homeowners (Ryan McCarthy in the coke t-shirt), contractor (Troy Gilchrist of Acumen Insulation and Coatings in the foreground) and workforce recruit/trainee.

About the author  ⁄ Sarah Maurer

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