BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — Green yard signs that sprouted in some prosperous neighborhoods near downtown prompted Lee Williams to look into the TC Saves home energy efficiency program.
Williams moved from Texas into her Traverse Heights neighborhood in July, and had concerns about her home's energy efficiency as her first Michigan winter loomed. She paid a $100 fee for the city-sponsored TC Saves program and received an energy assessment and detailed report on ways to improve her home's energy efficiency.
The assessment is worth $400 or more, but comes at a reduced cost because the city is part of a $723,000 U.S. Department of Energy pilot program.
"For a $100, the service was definitely worth it for me," Williams said.
But the prevalence of TC Saves yard signs in what Williams referred to as the "presidential area," of the city, as opposed to more affordable addresses, prompted concerns among some city officials.
"Historically, efforts to reduce residential energy consumption address the general public and often fail to reach those most vulnerable," said Mayor Michael Estes. "We need to come together with a program that one way or the other we address these households."
The city began TC Saves in fall 2011 under a grant for the Traverse Heights and Oak Park neighborhoods, said Ken Gregory, assistant director of public services for Traverse City. The city chose those neighborhoods based on the variety of income levels and housing. The city and its nonprofit partners even knocked on doors to inform every household of the program.
The city's success garnered extra funding and the ability to spread the program citywide for any single family and duplex home, including rentals.
But the $100 fee can hinder participation.
"The $100 is an obstacle that's difficult to overcome for some," said Brian Beauchamp, one of TC Saves' administrators. "It's an issue that's not new. It's been around for many years."
Tim Arends, interim executive director of Traverse City Light & Power, wants to see if the utility can cover the fee for low-income residents.
The city-owned utility in January created a committee to look at its charitable giving policies after Estes encouraged Light & Power officials to focus on helping customers lower their utility bills.
Gregory said he believes they have found a way for the utility to help cover the $100 fee for its low-income customers, but time is short. The program ends March 31, and the Light & Power committee has yet to meet.
The program also offers low interest loans of up to $20,000 to initiate energy efficiency improvements, but not everyone qualifies for the loan or is willing to take on the debt, Beauchamp said.
"Two years ago there were significant funding cuts in the weatherization program for low income (people)," Beauchamp said. "It's definitely been a challenge."
The assessment also includes free add-ons such as compact fluorescent bulbs, low-flow shower heads, programmable thermostats and pipe insulation that offer immediate energy savings, Beauchamp said.
TJ Brown, a contractor who conducts energy assessments, said air leakage is one of the most common causes of energy loss. Filling holes can be cheap and effective at preventing heat or cooling loss.
Williams, back in Traverse Heights, has problems in her attic and crawl space, but said her family won't take on the low interest loan to do the work all at once.
"We're probably going to spread it out," she said. "It's important for everybody to do their part to conserve energy."
More information about TC Saves can be found at www.tcsaves.com or by calling 620-1060.