By Devin Lowell, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package breathed new life into a Louisiana energy-efficiency program. But now low enrollment threatens the funding for that program, and state Department of Natural Resources wants to shift the money into programs they view as a better investment. If that happens, the state will lose out on a chance to make Louisiana homes healthier and more affordable while also creating new jobs and millions in economic opportunity.

Louisiana’s Home Energy Rebate Option, or HERO, program originally provided rebates of $2,000 to homeowners who improve the energy efficiency of their houses. Though the program began in 1999, an additional $15 million in funding from the 2009 stimulus bill – i.e. the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act — allowed LDNR to expand the program to include commercial properties and increase the rebate to $3,000.

The stimulus money came with a stipulation that it be spent by April 2012 – a deadline that may be hard to meet, given current levels of public participation. To date,  only about $3 million  has been disbursed.

But cutting off the program would be a blow to two ambitious new energy-efficiency programs designed to take advantage of HERO funds.

The city of Shreveport has established the Shreveport Energy Efficiency Division, or SEED, to oversee a retrofit financing program for both residential and small commercial properties.  By leveraging HERO funds and federal incentives, SEED has generated an enormous return on investment.

“We took half a million dollars and turned that into $12 million in economic development,” project consultant Bruce Hoffman, said. Hoffman also serves as chairman of the Louisiana chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit that engages in advocacy and education.

In New Orleans, meanwhile, the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance has  tapped into more than $800,000 from a separate Department of Energy program. The money will be available as small loans to homeowners for upgrades in energy efficiency.

Called NOLA WISE, the program looks to HERO funding as a way to expand its reach and scale. “We need to be able to access a broad range of incentives to increase client participation and to lower the up-front cost of the program,” said Camille Lopez, program manager at Global Green. A non-profit active in the post-Katrina recovery, Global Green administers the NOLA WISE program.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission last year began debating whether to require Louisiana electric and gas utilities to provide similar energy-efficiency programs for their customers.

If the policy is enacted, utilities across the state would be required to fund and implement programs like those in Shreveport and New Orleans. Smaller cooperative utilities will need the HERO program to assure their customers the same opportunities available to customers of the larger companies.

These initiatives and others across the state will ramp up participation in the HERO program – provided that LDNR doesn’t strip out the funding.

“They should work with the entities supporting these programs to mimic their success and bring that to other municipalities,” Hoffman said. “Shreveport is a cookie-cutter program. You could take that anywhere.”

Hoffman estimates that spending of the full $15 million in stimulus money on energy-efficiency programs like SEED and NOLA WISE could generate more than $300 million in economic activity in Louisiana.

“For a very small investment, that’s a huge return,” Hoffman said.

Instead of taking the money away, LDNR needs to keep the HERO program in place through April 2012. These funds will prove absolutely crucial to the success of efforts like those in Shreveport and New Orleans, and will empower Louisianans to make their homes healthier and more affordable.

Devin Lowell is with Global Green USA’s New Orleans office.