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For the staff at Efficiency First California (EFCA), 2020 started pretty well. 

Early in the year, after many months of development, we launched two software solutions for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, better known as SMUD. 

The first tool is an automated rebate workflow program that allows contractors to apply for rebates online and actively track their status. The second is a comprehensive trade ally network for contractors, called the SMUD Contractor Network (SCN). The SNC allows new contractors to submit information to become participating contractors and has a host of other features, such as a complete Learning Management System (LMS) and a contractor directory to help SMUD customers find qualified contractors. 

We have a long history of managing residential rebate programs for SMUD, and much of our day-to-day effort is related to implementing SMUDs residential rebate programs. Shifting to software development was a challenge. Both of these solutions were developed on platforms created and supported by third parties, and both required substantial changes to their existing structure to meet SMUD’s needs. Launching these tools took months of planning and extensive back and forth communication with SMUD and the software developers. 

In the end, we learned many lessons and were pleased to have created something of such value for contractors. When the tools went “live,” we switched from development mode to operations, something we have been doing for years. We were starting to settle into this workflow when the global pandemic hit. 

At first, we thought we would be okay, as SMUD has been a very reliable client for over the past decade. Eventually, though, the enormity of the pandemic started to take its toll. SMUD was losing revenue and had to cut spending. Our once-certain contract was in the crosshairs, and indeed, our budget was drastically reduced. I am sure this is a familiar story to many people who weathered the pandemic.

As the executive director, I faced a challenging situation. Do I lay off employees to reduce overhead? Or perhaps cut staff hours to part-time? Do we all take a cut in pay to ride out the storm? None of these are easy choices to make. At about the same time, the federal government was anxiously rolling out stimulus funds to stabilize the economy. We applied for and received a Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loan and covered payroll for a brief time. However, our workload for SMUD was down, as the pandemic had affected contractors too. We needed a new project, something positive that would keep us busy and benefit the community we served over the long term.

Efficiency First California is a trade organization that represents contractors. We often rely on education to help our contractors succeed, which is one of our missions. Another is to support the growth of energy efficiency and the clean energy sectors. However, when it comes down to it, the thing contractors need most is a pipeline of good customers. On more than one occasion, contractors have told me that the best thing about a rebate program was that it made the phone ring but that they would give up the rebates entirely in exchange for customer leads. After some contemplation about our future, it became clear that the best way we could support our mission was by sending leads to our contractors. 

After considering our options, we decided to leverage the knowledge we had gained building software solutions for SMUD and apply it to something for our members and the industry as a whole. We looked at the marketplace and determined that a statewide directory that connected interested homeowners to contractors might be an effective solution. 

The decision was further solidified by a conversation with the Building Decarbonization Coalition (BDC). The BDC was launching a new consumer awareness campaign, called The Switch Is On, to support electrification. They reached out to us as they knew we managed the SMUD contractor network’s development, including a contractor directory. They were interested in providing a contractor directory for their consumer awareness campaign and wanted to know if there was the potential to leverage the SMUDs directory.

We realized that we could use our SMUD experience to build a directory to support the BDC’s campaign. Creating a new software tool would keep our staff busy, and I was confident we could meet the BDC’s short-term needs. Deciding to develop a contractor directory for the BDC was the first step in creating the Clean Energy Connection.

This project had the benefit of keeping our small, agile, and efficient team working full-time. The PPP funds, combined with the continuing but reduced revenue from SMUD, were enough to keep us from laying off staff or cutting hours. In effect, the creation of the Clean Energy Connection was akin to a workforce program, much like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” public works programs in the 1930s. It was a win-win for all parties.

We started by considering who could help us build the product and reached out to a trusted partner to determine their capability and interest. It turns out the pandemic had forced them to make the same choices about staff and labor hours. By moving forward on development, we could help keep their team busy, support our staff, and help the BDC with their needs. It just seemed like the right project and, frankly, was a glimmer of hope during some pretty dark times. That is how it all began.

The next thing we needed to figure out was who our target audience would be. Realistically, we knew that we did not have the expertise or the resources to support a comprehensive consumer awareness effort. Promoting the larger decarbonization message would need to be the responsibility of much bigger players, like utilities or coalitions of interested parties, such as the Building Decarbonization Coalition. 

A more logical choice for us was to target customers who had already decided to go all-electric. We knew we could support these early adopters by helping them find contractors to help with their projects. We decided to focus on California, to begin with, as this was our territory. Early on, we decided we wanted to make the directory free for both homeowners and contractors. As a non-profit, we felt that not only was this was in alignment with our goals, it gave our effort more credibility as a grassroots effort to support consumers and contractors who want to address GHG reductions.

Ultimately, we defined the basic parameters:  A statewide online directory that would help customers interested in going all-electric find contractors who offered those services. Supporting contractors by sending them what they valued the most – leads to new customers. The directory would be free to users and contractors and align with the BDCs ‘The Switch Is On” consumer awareness campaign. And it would provide a project to keep valuable employees busy during the pandemic shutdown. 

We quickly rolled out a streamlined version in time for the Switch is On launch date. We then moved on to our full-featured product, which we launched in February of 2021. 

When you visit the Clean Energy Connection website, you will find a section on the home page showing the “Clean Energy Projects We Encourage.” The basic premise is we are listing individual measures that meet our objectives. Initially, the measures were all related to electrification. We included this in the streamlined version of the directory we launched for the BDC to support their electrification campaign. Recently, we have added home performance measures, such as energy audits, air sealing, and insulation. We intend to expand the measures list as we grow. 

We want this directory to represent high-quality, reputable contractors, and we have a strict vetting process. If you are a contractor and want to join the directory, you must offer some of the services we support. We also do license checks to ensure everyone we list is qualified to provide the services they are offering. We do automated Contractor State License Board reviews to make sure licenses are valid.

For example, if a contractor lists mini-split heat pump installation as a service they offer, we verify that they have the correct contractor’s license to provide that service. We require two customer references, who we contact to learn more about the contractor’s ability to provide good customer service and perform high-quality work. We also conduct an online reputation check to see what kind of online reviews the contractor’s customers provide. 

Customers who use the site can filter their contractor list in various ways, including location, type of service, contractor name, certifications, rebate programs, and more. When a homeowner selects a contractor for their project, they can submit a request to be contacted by that contractor. This structure allows us to track contractors’ response time to leads and follow up with homeowners to evaluate their experience. Contractors who earn more positive feedback are prioritized in search results, ensuring that we reward those performing high-quality work and have satisfied customers.

The Clean Energy Connection is an effort by a small, non-profit trade organization to help support the transition to clean energy in California. It is a work in progress, and it grows every day. We consider it a success if it helps homeowners find a contractor, and it supports contractors who are interested in a carbon-free future. The directory is still in its early release stages, but it is already doing what we had intended. We encourage you to check it out and share it with others. Hopefully, it will take on a life of its own and be an essential tool in moving the state to a clean energy future.