On stoplights, green means go, but now, for Guilford County homebuilders, green means rebates on the county’s building permit fees.

The new program, developed by the Guilford County Planning Department and approved by the Board of Commissioners, provides homebuilders with money back on permit fees if they build energy efficient houses and homes with a reduced carbon footprint.

Guilford County Planning Director Leslie Bell said the cities of Greensboro and High Point already have programs in place to encourage energy efficiency in newly built homes and, he added, it’s a another step forward to have Guilford County join those two cities. The Guilford County Planning Department issues permits for construction in unincorporated Guilford County and in the county’s small towns. That includes everywhere other than Greensboro, High Point and Gibsonville.

“The program will be based on the applicable minimum index levels necessary for Energy Star qualifications at the time the project is complete,” Bell said.

He added that rebate incentives for new construction will apply to houses but not to commercial buildings.

Bell said part of the permitting fees will be refunded to builders after the house is complete, the Planning Department fees have been paid in full and the new house has been certified by a third-party inspection agency,

“That’s the way Energy Star certification works,” he said. “There is a third party involved in giving that certification; it would not be our inspectors.”

Bell listed the reasons for the program.

“Number one, it’s to promote energy efficiency,” he said, adding that it’s meant “to encourage green building, to reduce the carbon footprint one house at a time and to offset the cost of going green.”

According to Bell, building an energy efficient home that meets the county’s qualifications for a rebate will, on average, cost about $5,000 or $6,000 more than building a standard home. He said that’s the main reason homebuilders currently don’t construct many green houses in Guilford County. The county’s new fee rebates won’t let builders and builder/owners recoup those costs but will at least make a dent in the expense. Builders can usually sell these houses at a premium, and owners should see reduced energy costs over the life of the house, which is another incentive for homeowners.

Bell said that, for a 2,100-square-foot house, the estimated Guilford County permitting fee would be $885. The highest eligible amount for the rebate would be 50 percent of that fee, $442.50.

“We capped it at $500 on the rebate,” Bell added.

He said, for instance, if someone builds a 3,100-square-foot home, the estimated permitting costs would be $1,235; however, the maximum refund from Guilford County would be $500.

Like many energy conservation efforts, this new county program relies on Energy Star standards and other criteria developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Home efficiency is measured on the Home Energy Rating System index, known in the industry as the “HERS index.” On that scale, a score of 100 reflects what a typical reference home of a similar size would see in energy use.

“The lower that your rating is, the more energy efficient that your home is,” Bell said. “If you look at an existing home today, it would score about 130. If you look at a standard new home, it would score about a 100 when using Energy Star appliances. And, then, if you did an Energy Star home – it’s more than just the appliances; it’s some other things that you do to make the home more efficient – it would come in about an 85. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

Luis Jimenez, the plans and permit chief for the Guilford County Planning Department, helped develop the county’s new program. He said his department put a lot of thought into it and conducted research to see what was working elsewhere.

“We reached out to a contractor who specializes in green building,” he said. “He’s got a little subdivision on the Colfax side of town. He gave us a lot of insight on extra stuff contractors are doing so that they can advertise and sell their homes as green-built and energy efficient.”

The Planning Department ideally wants applications for a rebate to be submitted at the time of permitting, but they are willing to offer a little flexibility in that regard.

“Maybe they decide midstream that that they want to spend the extra $5,000 or $6,000 to have an energy efficient home,” Jimenez said, adding that, in those cases, the department will work with the builder.

Jimenez said the State of North Carolina has five agencies that can provide the necessary energy certifications. They will inspect the building three times at different stages in the construction process and then make a judgment.

The contractor or homeowner in control will receive a certificate verifying that the house qualifies.

“They’ll submit that to the county to review, which will make sure it’s authentic,” Jimenez said.

In the new program, there are also some minor energy efficiency incentives for existing homes – and those also apply to commercial buildings. The program, for instance, calls for “up to” $20 in rebates for doing things like adding geothermal heat pumps, photovoltaic energy systems, solar hot water heating systems or rainwater collection devices.

Those rebates obviously won’t come close to covering cost but the county officials say it is at least an added incentive.

Bell said that, currently, very few houses in Guilford County are built to green standards that reflect a HERS index score of 85 or below.