Terri Schroeder exemplifies a new kind of sustainability professional—one with a strong drive to make change and the business acumen to make it happen.

In her two years as Michigan Saves‘ Operations Manager, Schroeder has grown the program’s residential and commercial loan programs and is now overseeing the launch of new public sector and multifamily housing initiatives. The job requires her to interact with a diverse array of stakeholders, including lenders, public utilities managers, energy contractors, business owners, and the public, to advance Michigan Saves’ much-needed energy efficiency financing programs.

Schroeder came to the job with a diverse set of experiences that include Americorps’ City Year Detroit program, energy and economic development strategic planning, and a dual MBA/MS in Sustainability from the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.  An avid outdoorswoman and a lifelong Michiganian, Schroeder sees energy efficiency as one of the most important steps Michigan can take to advance sustainability.

Smart Energy spoke with Schroeder to find out more about what she does and how she does it.

Smart Energy: Why did energy efficiency speak to you as a topic that you wanted to focus on in your career?

Schroeder: It’s the area where we can make the most improvement in terms of a more sustainable future. Energy efficiency is the cheapest energy source there is. So I really appreciate my job right now because I think it is the perfect blend of what the Erb Institute offers in terms of sustainability and core business principles.

Smart Energy: Why are business skills so important to your professional work in advancing sustainability?

Schroeder: One of the things we do really well is build public-private partnerships; we make energy efficiency attractive for private funds. I think my understanding of finance and business and ability to understand the business side make me effective as the primary liaison with all of our lenders.

This is about understanding both how all of our lenders operate—in other words, thinking like a business—and also knowing how to explain to customers things like return on investment, or APR vs. flat rate, or the cash-positive nature of many of our projects, which is really important.

Smart Energy: Why is having the financing piece so important to implementing energy efficiency?

Schroeder: Research has shown that the initial cost of energy efficiency improvements is the major deterrent. So the ability for customers to overcome that first cost barrier is critical. When we were starting up Michigan Saves in 2009, it was not easy to get lending of any sort for energy efficiency improvements, so we wanted to provide a solution to that problem.

Smart Energy:  How does the availability of financing for energy projects advance economic development in Michigan communities?

Schroeder: Our contractors tell us again and again that they have gotten business because the financing enables them to close deals that they would not otherwise have landed. We also know through our analysis that jobs that were financed were 2.5 times bigger than jobs that were paid for in cash. The average size of a cash project was $4,200, and the average financed project was more than $10,000. So we know the availability of financing allows contractors to do more projects and bigger projects, and that really does affect their bottom line. We have more than 400 contractors in our network who can take advantage of this benefit.

We also know it makes a difference for homeowners and business owners who are saving their money on energy. Many of the residential projects have a slightly longer return-on-investment period, but our loans are about three years old at this point, so those homeowners are going to start seeing the results of those savings. We estimate the average homeowner will save about $350 per year, and we’ve done more than 3,500 homes, so that’s more than $1 million per year being saved by Michigan homeowners.

Smart Energy: How does Michigan compare to other states at this point in terms of the availability of this type of financing?

Schroeder: I think that we have a really competitive offer. We now have a comprehensive offering for residential, multifamily, commercial, and public buildings, kind of a one-stop shop for any type of building in Michigan. The comprehensive nature of our program makes us a leader in the nation. There are some residential and utility-based programs with mandates that are larger than ours, but we have really competitive rates and a great network of contractors that add value to anyone who wants to do an energy project.

This past summer, we had an evaluations consultant benchmark our commercial program. In less than a year, we are already in the top 10 in the country in terms of financing volume. We are really impressed with how that program has grown.

We also are very pleased with the utilities working with us to buy down interest rates, and being able to leverage the state’s energy optimization program to help provide financing.

Smart Energy: What does Michigan need to do to as a state to move forward with energy efficiency?

We think one of the most important things to do is educate energy consumers. That’s why we invested a significant portion of our marketing budget to create the “Avoid Energy Drama” public service announcement campaign, which has been picked up in 14 markets around the state. It plays on the conflict within a family on how to deal with energy problems. The goal of the program is to wake up consumers to their energy problem and show them that there’s a better way, a smarter way to deal with energy and comfort issues in the home.

About 30 of our contractors signed up to offer $99 energy audits as part of the effort, an enormous value for our customers. We want people to come to the website and sign up for an energy audit so we can help them identify their problem areas. We want people to realize that everyone has that internal conflict and resolution can be found, quite often, with some pretty simple measures. Once people see how much energy they are wasting, they are really motivated to stop wasting the money associated with that energy problem. Not to mention, customers gush over the added benefit of having a more comfortable and quiet house—no more cold floors in the winter or steamy second level in the summer.

We also really like the utility energy optimization program, and we think utilities are great partners and resources for getting the message out. We know many of our customers were first enticed into energy efficiency by utility incentives, so we do what we can to make our programs complementary.

I would also say there is some movement for energy scores to be on homes during the buying and selling process. We haven’t done a lot of advocacy on that, but, in general, we think more informed buyers are better buyers. And we think this could help remove some of the barriers on investments that have a longer payback. Those who invests in energy measures should be able to derive some benefit when they go to sell the property.

Smart Energy: What accomplishment have you been most excited about since you started as Operations Manager at Michigan Saves?

Schroeder: Business owners wear so many hats, and it’s really hard to get them to focus on energy efficiency. We know everyone struggles with this nationwide, but it was a real struggle for us to get business folks interested. Contractors were interested, but it was harder with business owners, so I am proud that the program continues to get applications, continues to get utility cooperation, and continues to make projects happen beyond the initial kickoff phase.

Smart Energy: When you’re not helping homeowners, businesses, public sector managers, and multifamily property managers make their buildings greener, how do you like to spend your time?

Schroeder: I love to be outdoors. I’m doing a pseudo-triathlon in June, which will include running, biking and kayaking, so most of my spring is dedicated to training on that. I also play in softball and golf leagues in the summer, and we do lots of camping, boating and bike riding. So I am waiting for that kind of weather to come back so I can get outside and enjoy Michigan.