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Clean Energy Works: The name says it all

Two Views • Is Portland's weatherization program a government failure or success?
by: JONATHAN HOUSE, Ted Snider of EcoTech LLC, one of the contractors for Clean Energy Works, blows insulation into the attic of a customer’s home.

As one of 16 contractors representing Clean Energy Works Portland, I am proud to be part of such a broadly supported and distinguished approach to establishing a local energy-efficiency industry.

With a pilot program on its way to completion, more than 30 jobs have been created or retained, with more on the way. Good wages are being paid, which means we won't have a race to the bottom as we grow this sector. And small businesses are growing. These are real companies employing real people.

I've been in the construction industry a long time. My father, Neil, our company's namesake, always stood for quality, community and giving workers a leg up. I've seen countless efforts touting these virtues come and go.

Clean Energy Works is different. Like its name says, it works.

To be honest, when I heard that the federal government would be providing stimulus dollars for weatherization, I was leery. In the 1970s, I made business investments with the expectation that the public sector would fulfill its promise of backing a burgeoning energy efficiency and renewable energy industry. Yet, when the Reagan Administration abruptly changed directions and pulled the funding, I was left with unrecoverable expenses and discouragement toward public-private collaborations.

So last year, when the city of Portland launched the 500-home Clean Energy Works Portland pilot, we engaged cautiously. We were encouraged by many elements of the program:

• The focus on quality, comprehensiveness and convenience that enables homeowners to ensure deep energy savings - through insulating, sealing air leaks, installing a new furnace, heat pump or water heater - without a hassle.

• The thoughtful design that pairs highly trained contractors with neutral advisers who help customers through the multi-step process.

• The bundled finance offering combined with easy repayment on utility bills.

• Perhaps most importantly, the intention to engage banks to lend into a sector worthy of investment rather than rely on public subsidy, thus enabling a self-sustaining funding source.

From a business perspective, this program makes sense. Clean Energy Works is helping contractors create jobs. It is achieving a remarkable 66 percent conversion rate from energy audit to loan signing.

But don't take my word for it. Customers want this product. It's evident in the 95 percent customer satisfaction rate - amazing at the early stages of any new product.

It's no wonder. Clean Energy Works makes it as easy as possible to retrofit your home, including helping you overcome barriers to structural challenges like old wiring.

This program works. Don't let anyone fool you simply because they don't understand how productive, market-based collaboration can occur between public, private and nonprofit sectors.

This has been an impressive pilot by every measure. Jobs are getting created. Businesses are growing. Customers are pleased. Home values will be enhanced. Mayor Sam Adams and the city of Portland should be commended for producing these results.

Clean Energy Works is recognized as a model for the rest of our country. We have our utilities involved. We have local financial institutions engaged. We have concern for job quality and worker safety. We have results.

What's most exciting is that the scale-up plans are being drawn by a statewide private sector organization, Clean Energy Works Oregon, to ensure it doesn't get tangled in a government bureaucracy. There is tremendous growth opportunity around our state. An estimated 540,000 single-family homes are in need of weatherization. Rural communities are hungry for this program.

To create the clean energy future we all want, we all need to inspire policymakers and capital providers to see the value in improving energy performance. It'll take time to break through the inexcusable resistance to economic development that achieves broad societal benefit, but we must be persistent.

With the lack of federal leadership on climate change and the overall gridlock in Congress, it is refreshing to participate in an effort that catalyzes a local community to get meaningful results. At Neil Kelly, we feel strongly that participating in Clean Energy Works is one way we can do our part to enable consumers to make a difference that's good for themselves and our whole community.

Tom Kelly is president of Neil Kelly Co. in Lake Oswego.