A toolbox. To most of us it’s just a case for toting hammers and nails — whatever tools we need to repair our homes, offices or cars. To Michigan Saves, however, it’s a term used frequently to describe the exceptional collection of initiatives, incentives and financing options the organization has put together to help homeowners make easy and affordable energy-efficiency upgrades.

“We’ve been working with the residential sector since 2010 to help people improve the comfort of their homes, save money on their energy bills and make Michigan a more energy-efficient state,” says Michigan Saves operations manager Kait Wyckoff.

The organization has done that primarily through its Home Energy Loan Program (HELP). Since its inception, HELP has served more than 7,000 families and enabled more than $65 million in capital to be invested in energy improvements ranging from the most basic upgrades, like caulking doors and windows, to more complicated endeavors, such as replacing inefficient furnaces and water heaters or installing new insulation.

“What we’re really proud of is that, even though HELP is a fairly mature program, we’re still looking for new tools — and improving others — to reach more audiences and simplify the energy-efficiency improvement process,” says Wyckoff.

This past year, Michigan Saves made enormous strides on that front.

On-bill financing launched

For example, a major milestone was reached in 2016 when a concept that had been researched came to fruition in the form of the Holland On-Bill Loan Program. Through this program, homeowners can easily access low-interest loans ranging from $5,000 to $30,000 and repay them directly through their Holland Board of Public Works electric bill. Unlike traditional loan programs, this one doesn’t even look at credit scores or debt-to-income ratios; instead, if a homeowner has a 12-month, on-time utility bill payment history, they’re eligible to participate.

“This puts energy-saving and renewable energy improvements at the fingertips of a lot of people who previously couldn’t make upgrades simply because they couldn’t access financing,” explains Wyckoff.

She puts that number at about 35 percent of those who apply for the organization’s traditional loan program. Now, with on-bill financing, more people can make energy improvements, the City of Holland can move more quickly toward reaching the goals of its Community Energy Plan and the state can further its energy waste reduction efforts.

In 2017, Michigan Saves is conducting a feasibility study to determine what it would take to implement on-bill financing statewide.

Buydowns continue to spur larger-scale projects

Also increasing access to energy enhancements were the incredible buydowns Michigan Saves’ utility partners offered this year. The Lansing Board of Water and Light, Consumers Energy and Wyandotte Municipal Services all partnered with Michigan Saves and its lenders to buy down interest rates to as low as 0% APR, allowing more people to implement more projects.

“The willingness of our utility and lending partners to work together to offer such great interest rates is a testament to their commitment to better serving residential customers,” Wyckoff says.

The buydowns also enable communities — like Lansing and Wyandotte — to leverage Michigan Saves’ already low interest rates to help residents lower their energy impact. Alongside these benefits, they allow customers to do a much wider range of projects than they may have otherwise taken on.

Solar makes a surge in the residential market

During 2016, the funding of solar residential projects also entered center stage through innovative partnerships with programs such as Solarize Michigan and Groundwork Shines.

“Although Michigan Saves typically focuses more on energy efficiency than renewables, this year we wanted to explore different strategies for helping homeowners go solar,” says Wyckoff.

Solarize Michigan was a limited-time grassroots effort in Saginaw, Midland and Bay Counties in which experts — at no cost — went into people’s homes, evaluated their dwellings for solar viability and, if the homes were good candidates, connected them with local installation companies approved for Michigan Saves financing. Through this new initiative — which was led, in part, by the Institute for Energy Innovation — participating homeowners saved an average of 10 percent on installation costs and now are reaping the benefits of lower electric bills.

Another solar program — Groundwork Shines — is striving to increase the installation of solar panels on the other side of the state, specifically in Traverse City and Frankfort. Launched on Earth Day 2016, Groundwork Shines encourages people who have installed solar systems to spread the word to their friends and neighbors about why solar makes economic sense, even in northerly, often cloudy climates.

“This program leverages the fact that the best advocates are not always organizations, but the people who have actually taken the solar leap and have experienced its benefits first-hand,” says Wyckoff.

Groundwork Shines will continue its efforts in 2017 to help Michiganders better understand that, around the country, solar panel costs are declining, solar demand is increasing and they stand to benefit by jumping on this fast-moving bandwagon.

Contractors step up their game for beer and wings

Homeowner improvements also increased this year, in part, due to the enthusiasm and commitment of Michigan Saves contractors.

“Every day, our authorized contractors are out on the front lines helping customers find safe and affordable ways to make the energy improvements they want and need,” says Wyckoff. “Our success depends on their skill, their understanding of available financing options and their pure determination to help homeowners lessen their energy footprint.”

One of the ways Michigan Saves recognizes contractors for their efforts is through its Beer and Wings program, which honors those who complete 24 or more loans over a designated six-month period with parties featuring spicy wings and ice cold beer.

This year, Michigan Saves added two new award categories to open up the competition — Rookie of the Year, which recognizes a new contractor who secures the most loans, and Most Improved Player, which acknowledges a contractor who has been involved with Michigan Saves for several years but who experienced significant growth in the number or value of loans completed.

“Every day, these folks are helping us reduce energy waste in Michigan, so we want to show as many of them as possible how much we respect and value their work,” says Wyckoff.

This innovative contest is just one more example of the new and improved tools Michigan Saves added to its toolbox in 2016 to better serve the residents of Michigan.