Beth Domingo watched in wonder as contractors uncovered the flaws in her four-bedroom suburban Maryland home. After living there for 18 years, she thought she knew it inside and out, but she was wrong.

"There were all these little holes," she remembers.

Some were in the garage wall, drilled by her ex-husband during a sloppy rewiring job years ago. Others weren't exactly holes, but cracks in the lining of her front door, back door and windows. She discovered they weren't snug when the contractors turned on a powerful exhaust fan that sucked air through her doors, revealing all the drafts in her house.

They also discovered that the chimney and roof lacked proper insulation, allowing heat to rise up and out of the house all winter long. The biggest surprise was in an upstairs bedroom, where two vents had never been properly attached to the house's heating and cooling system.

"That particular bedroom had always been cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and now we know why," says Domingo. "It just makes me sick to think we were losing all this energy for years and years and years."

Domingo admits that she never would have looked into her home's energy efficiency if it hadn't been for an experimental government program launched in her town last year. She lives in University Park, Md., one of 41 communities participating in the Department of Energy's Better Buildings Neighborhood Program -- an initiative born out of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

From 2010 to 2013, the three-year program is set to provide $508 million in federal stimulus money to beef up energy efficiency in neighborhoods around the country. The idea is threefold: Cut greenhouse gas emissions, help residents save on their utility bills and create jobs.

Dr. Drafty meets the Kilowatt Kid
All the while, communities will be reporting data back to DOE so it can learn which strategies are successful.

"We view the funding as seed funding, or venture capitalist funding," explains Danielle Sass Byrnett, the program's manager. "We're innovating and trying to identify the best approaches."

Based on individualized grant proposals, each community is awarded between $1.4 million and $40 million to bring its ideas to life. And everyone has a unique plan.

A program in Philadelphia offers homeowners and business owners up to $15,000 in loans to perform energy upgrades, with fixed interest rates as low as 1 percent for 10 years. In Michigan, volunteers go door to door to inform residents about the advantages of retrofitting their homes.

In Boulder County, Colo., students are taught about energy efficiency through characters like Kilowatt Kid, Count Plugula and Dr. Drafty. And a Massachusetts program uses thermal imaging to show residents where heat is escaping from their houses.

In University Park, it took local contractors less than two days to renovate Domingo's house, costing her $1,750. Two weeks later, she received $1,450 worth of checks in her mailbox.

"You're going to be blown away by the rebates," she told a neighbor during a community energy fair last month.

"Really?"

"I got three-quarters of the money back," said Domingo.

The other woman, who was having trouble persuading her husband to participate, sighed. "Forget the money," she said. "It's the right thing to do."

Byrnett says the Better Buildings Neighborhood Program tends to work well in small towns, like University Park, where word can spread fast between neighbors. Nationally, one of the biggest challenges has been getting people's attention and educating skeptics about energy efficiency.

Creating jobs, but for how long?
The average U.S. homeowner wastes between $200 and $400 annually because of drafts and outdated heating and cooling systems, meaning those who take advantage of a neighborhood program often see a full return on their investment in a matter of months.

"This will improve their comfort and their energy bills," explains Byrnett. "There is a solution that's not all that complicated, really."

According to U.S. EPA numbers, if 10 percent of the nation's homes and commercial buildings cut a quarter of their energy consumption, it would save $8 billion a year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 55 million metric tons -- equal to the carbon dioxide absorbed by a pine forest covering an area the size of both Connecticut and Massachusetts. And aside from cutting down on costs and emissions, the federal funding is creating jobs.

So far, University Park has renovated 10 percent of its 875 homes, employing 35 local contractors and suppliers and creating nine full-time jobs, according to the town's mayor, John Tabori.

In more rural areas, where contractors can be scarce, funds are being used to hire and train workers in energy renovation. The program expects to create or retain about 30,000 jobs and upgrade at least 100,000 buildings nationwide by the end of 2013.

"Our long-term goal is really to catalyze a building upgrade industry ... getting us toward an energy-efficient economy that's built to last," says Byrnett.

If the project fails to meet its objectives, it could easily become ammunition for Republicans who believe energy efficiency shouldn't be a top government priority. With no funding guaranteed for the program after 2013, Byrnett stresses the importance of gathering data now, so local governments can replicate the best practices in the future.

Considering that DOE received 130 grant applications from communities in 2010, she says, plenty of people are hungry for programs that work.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500