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Seeking to become the greenest city in the country, Cambridge launched on March 29 a sweeping $70 million energy efficiency program to conserve energy in virtually every building within city boundaries, reducing emissions that contribute to global warming.

University, commercial, and even residential buildings will receive energy audits over the next five years to pinpoint energy inefficiencies. Property owners will then be offered low- or zero-interest loans to undertake remediation efforts ranging from replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents to installing insulated roofs and more efficient heating and cooling systems.

"The notion of a city as a platform on which to build massive energy efficiency is the critical innovation," said Douglas I. Foy, former Massachusetts secretary of commonwealth development, who is advising Cambridge officials. "Cities are the Saudi Arabia of energy efficiency, a mine of massive efficiency opportunities."

The program, which energy specialists said is the first of its kind in the nation, was unveiled March 29 morning at an event led by Governor Deval Patrick.

The energy efficiency measures will be financed by loans made from a $70 million fund, most of which will be raised from private sources by investment bank Bostonia Partners LLC. Large capital improvement costs may be shared by the program and the building owners themselves.

Cambridge officials expect that as the city demonstrates progress on reducing electricity use they can qualify to receive money from a $1-billion-a-year fund that the operator of the regional electric power grid collects from users to ensure there are sufficient power supplies in the future.

The Cambridge organizers said the first phase of their efforts will take five to seven years and will target about half of the 23,000 buildings in the city. The goal in that period is to reduce overall electricity use by 10 percent, and during peak hours — roughly 4 to 7 p.m. daily — by 14 percent, to 300 megawatts from 350 megawatts. The average household in Cambridge uses about 4,500 kilowatt/hours of electricity a year, costing about $800, according to city officials.

To meet future additional energy demands, the cost of saving one kilowatt of electricity through more efficient practices is about one-third of what it would cost to buy that kilowatt from a new power plant, energy specialists say.

The energy specialists who helped organize the effort believe that by reducing consumption within buildings they will also be reducing the emissions that contribute to global warming. If Cambridge meets its goals, the energy specialists said, it will have reduced annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 150,000 tons.

"Seventy percent of emissions come from buildings," said Robert L. Pratt, senior vice president of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, which focuses on environmental matters and conceived and helped design the program, and is contributing $250,000 toward it. "The built environment is where the largest portion of the problem lies."

Most of Cambridge's buildings are residential, with around 2,400 others owned by universities and other nonprofits, commercial and industrial landlords, and governments.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation over the last two centuries have caused an increase in the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Trapped in the atmosphere, those gases have contributed to a slow rise in the planet's temperature, and some scientists have predicted catastrophic effects if the warming is not slowed.

In Cambridge, officials expect the greatest and quickest savings will come from working with universities and large commercial and industrial properties, which collectively account for 69 percent of the city's energy consumption. Ultimately, proponents hope that all residential property owners will agree to undertake the recommended improvements.

Participation is voluntary, but a significant element of the project is a campaign to build public enthusiasm, to create peer pressure to get more property owners involved. Toward that end, officials have designed a logo and created a slogan, "Cambridge Energy Alliance: Saving Money & the Planet," that they hope will be ubiquitous.

"People are going to be saying, if you're a dry cleaner or a restaurant, 'Where's your decal?' " said Pratt. "This is basically about innovative financing and building enthusiasm."

The nonprofit organization, the Cambridge Energy Alliance, will hire energy consultants to work with property owners to determine how to make their buildings more efficient. Improvements could be as simple as beefing up building insulation or adding storm windows, or something as expensive as installing a high-efficiency cogeneration system at a large property, which generates electricity and throws off heat to warm rooms in winter.

Even changing light bulbs can make a difference, specialists say. A compact fluorescent bulb uses about one-fourth the electricity of an incandescent bulb that projects the same amount of light.