You can think of cities like Berkeley, Calif., Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo., as sustainability laboratories, beta-testing public policies that embrace the most advanced concepts in green codes and sustainability standards. Progressive cities are buoyed by a politic that supports sustainable solutions. As early adopters, they provide a template of experience and database of results that others can later use to develop regionally appropriate policies without the risk of experimentation. For example, Berkeley modeled the first effective municipal loan program to finance alternative energy installations through a property assessment, which was then adopted as a statewide program through the Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

More recently, the DOE completed and published a thorough and highly informative evaluation of Boulder’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2002 with the goal of reducing carbon emissions 7% below the 1990 levels by the end of this year. Carbon emissions actually increased, and the vaunted 2012 goals were not achieved. Still, the DOE’s report concludes that Boulder’s even more ambitious 2020 goals are within reach, if the city moves forward aggressively. Both failure and success provide valuable lessons. Boulder engaged the DOE to help develop more effective plans.

The results were codified in the SmartRegs Ordinance that went into effect in January 2011 and includes a mandate requiring all rental property owners to bring their rentals up to a minimum energy-efficiency standard by 2019 (approximately equivalent to a HERS Index of 120). Considering that Boulder’s housing stock includes approximately 20,000 rental units (almost 50% of Boulder’s total housing stock) and audits conducted in 2011 showed current HERS indices between 100 and 192, the resulting energy savings are expected to be significant.

Boulder also received a $12 million grant that it used to create and incentivize its EnergySmart program. The program’s strategy centers on an energy advisor who works with homeowners during an on-site house visit and can close a retrofit sale on the spot if upgrades are recommended. This service is seen as a key strategy for actually meeting the city’s goals. To assist homeowners with upgrades, rebates and loans are offered through the EnergySmart program.

Performance targets for the EnergySmart program include improving 10,000 homes and 3,000 businesses by May 2013. SmartRegs goals for 2013 include having 9,000 rental units participate in the program, with 4,500 of those being brought into compliance. As of December 2011, 3,374 homes had enrolled in EnergySmart. More than 1,500 rental properties have been signed up for SmartRegs, with more than 900 already achieving compliance.

These programs and goals are among the most ambitious in the United States. Since landlords represent the most resistant sector to making retrofit energy investments, generally having no financial incentive to do so given residents typically pay the utility bills, the DOE concludes that promoting retrofit programs like Boulder’s SmartRegs ordinance “could lead to energy-efficiency improvements for millions of residential rental units across the United States and result in lower gross rents for much of the country’s rental population.” Of the approximately 34 million rental units in the United States, more than 24 million were built before 1980 and consequently to efficiency levels prevalent at the time. Based on these statistics, a federal version of the Boulder SmartRegs suggests an enormous opportunity for energy reduction in rental units.

You can read a detailed analysis of the Boulder SmartRegs Ordinance at http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/publications/pdfs/building_america/boulder_smartregs.pdf.