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Urban energy program a triple-win for Milwaukee

Winter/Spring 2013 | By Amanda Lucas

For some residents of Milwaukee, winters will not be as cold and drafty as those in recent memory. 

While the lakefront city is accustomed to harsh temperatures and gusty winds, hundreds of homes and businesses are better insulated and tightened up, thanks to an effort led by a Nelson Institute alumnus.

Erick Shambarger
Erick Shambarger

Erick Shambarger, deputy director of environmental sustainability for the city, oversees the Milwaukee Energy Efficiency program, or Me2. He says the program, which retrofits houses and buildings to save energy, boosts the economy, the environment and urban jobseekers.

“It’s kind of a threefold impact,” Shambarger says. “We want to cut energy use as an economic development tool, try to do something to reduce our greenhouse gas profile, and attract local jobs.”

Launched in 2011 to help homeowners make affordable energy efficiency improvements to their homes, Me2 has since expanded to include business owners interested in lowering energy costs and “greening” their buildings. 

To date, Me2 has upgraded more than 445 homes and has approved nearly 100 business projects in Milwaukee valued at more than $8.8 million dollars.

Retrofitting a building for energy efficiency is an important tool for businesses to remain financially competitive and grow, according to Shambarger.  

“Energy costs are a constant challenge, and probably one of the biggest costs for any business owner,” he says. “We’d like to be able to reduce that for the long term as an economic development tool, and help all these older buildings remain competitive.”

The city of Milwaukee recently joined the national Better Buildings Challenge, a U.S. Department of Energy initiative to encourage building owners to cut their energy use 20 percent by 2020. The city urges business owners to participate by taking advantage of Me2’s financing options. 

Milwaukee committed its portfolio of government buildings to the challenge, Shambarger reports, along with many other downtown buildings – including the U.S. Bank skyscraper, which, at 42 stories, is Wisconsin’s tallest.

Me2 also works to lower the average carbon footprint of the city through residences. Prior to Me2, however, homeowners received little financial incentive from city government to make their dwellings environmentally friendly. 

Insulation is blown into the wall cavity of a home as part of the Milwaukee Energy Efficiency program, or Me2, which helps homeowners and businesses finance energy efficiency upgrades.
Insulation is blown into the wall cavity of a home as part
of the Milwaukee Energy Efficiency program, or Me2.

“For energy, you have to find creative solutions to finance efficiency efforts – they have high upfront costs, but they pay off over the long term,” Shambarger says. 

To help homeowners overcome the front-end costs, Me2 partnered with Summit Credit Union to provide loan programs specifically for Milwaukee residents interested in energy efficiency updates. If homeowners can gain at least 15 percent energy savings through the Me2 program, they qualify for loans through Summit. The energy savings realized through retrofits are intended to cover the cost of the loan.

Homeowners also receive a subsidized home energy assessment and a grant for eligible health and safety upgrades, often making the upfront costs negligible. And, Me2 goes one step further, offering homeowners federally funded rebates based on projected residential energy savings. Rebates as high as $2,000 can be earned by cutting energy use at least 35 percent.

Me2 has been funded primarily by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the “stimulus bill” signed into law in 2009 by President Obama. The act was meant to kick-start economic activity and growth by creating new jobs and saving existing jobs. In the case of Me2, Shambarger says, it provided a way to create a long-term, sustainable market for energy efficiency.  

As part of Me2, the city implemented a community workforce agreement that requires contractors who work with the program to delegate at least 40 percent of work hours to city residents formerly unemployed or underemployed. 

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett highlights Me2’s successes at an event at Wisconsin Knitwear, one of the nearly 100 participating Milwaukee businesses. Owner Steve Arenzon is pictured at right
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett highlights Me2’s
successes at an event at Wisconsin Knitwear,
one of the nearly 100 participating businesses.

“We’re trying to put people back to work doing energy efficiency retrofits,” Shambarger says.  

According to Shambarger, many other organizations contribute to the success of Me2. The Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation helps to administer the program, in addition to similar initiatives in Madison and Racine, and private contractors develop and implement specific efficiency projects.

The Center on Wisconsin Strategy at UW originally presented the Me2 concept to the city of Milwaukee in 2008, with it ultimately approved by Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council.   

Shambarger, who graduated from UW-Madison in 2002 with a master’s degree in public affairs from the La Follette School and a certificate in energy analysis and policy from the Nelson Institute, says his wide-ranging education taught him to think holistically in ways that have helped him create successful programs like Me2.

“It’s really thrilling to be able to have an impact on the community and see the city do something that it wasn’t doing before,” he says. “It’s great to be a part of something new to move the city forward.”

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