Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity
A dozen volunteers swarm the yard of the Villareal house on the east side of Austin, Texas. The atmosphere is jubilant, almost celebratory — a real coming together of people with a purpose. By the time the volunteers leave today, the home will have been retrofitted with improvements in energy efficiency that the family could not have afforded to make themselves.
This retrofit — and others like it — are the work of a group called Rays of Hope, the brainchild of Effie Brunson. Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) visited by phone with Brunson. — Publisher
BPGL: What motivated you to start Rays of Hope?
BRUNSON: I was participating in a leadership program in which our directive was to start a community project. The project was supposed to last about six months, from beginning to end. But I wasn’t satisfied with that! [She laughs.] I had to make it much more difficult and create an ongoing project.
BPGL: Were you always interested in improving energy efficiency?
BRUNSON: My chief concern was in the area of green building. It’s my passion. When I started the group, I was just beginning to get interested in renewable energy and how it could be utilized as a social equity tool.
BPGL: What you mean by a “social equity tool”?
BRUNSON: It seemed to me that the only people who can afford renewable energy are wealthy people. That’s upside down. The ones who really need it are the poor people. It just doesn’t make much sense.
I had read about a project where a nonprofit set up systems of solar collectors in poor countries, places where there was no running water. They used the solar energy collectors to pump water for drinking and to create electricity. It gave the people lighting at night to extend their working hours and to bring them basic quality of life.
Helping poor people seems like the highest and best use, instead of people putting solar energy panels on top of their house to power their subzero freezer. It’s not that I think it’s bad for them to use solar that way, it’s just that’s not the highest and best use of the technology. My goal was to find the highest and best use, locally, for renewable energy technology.
BPGL: Who is benefiting from your project?
BRUNSON: We started with a population that isn’t necessarily overlooked, but that’s getting squeezed lately. Property values are rising for close-in neighborhoods. Residents are less able to pay their property taxes and expenses. Together with Meals on Wheels and More, we have served a lot of people in that neighborhood.
This coming year, we’ll work with Austin Energy to find people who are struggling to pay their utility bills. That will be the focus for our next solar energy and retrofit projects.
BPGL: I understand that Rays of Hope has combined efforts with 1 House at a Time. Tell us about that.
BRUNSON: 1 House at a Time was started by Mike Frisch, who had the idea to upgrade low-income homes by replacing old, inefficient appliances; adding rain water collection, insulation, compact fluorescent light bulbs, low-flow shower heads, and so on. My own idea was to install solar panels on top of low-income homes. We’ve joined forces and now we work together under Rays of Hope.
BPGL: What have your volunteers accomplished so far?
BRUNSON: We’ve completed seven retrofits and one solar photovoltaic (PV) installation.
BPGL: How is solar PV different from other solar energy collectors?
BRUNSON: There are two common technologies used in retrofits. Solar hot water systems just heat water. They’re less expensive and use lower technology. Solar PV is more expensive, but it creates electricity for the entire home. The entire utility bill is reduced. But, for the average homeowner, it’s a lot quicker return on investment to install solar hot water.
BPGL: What’s involved in the energy efficiency retrofits?
BRUNSON: In the energy retrofits, we’re doing all we can to reduce the load in the home without applying renewable energy technology. If the household qualifies for help from Austin Energy , we first let them come in and do their part with energy audits, insulation, solar screens, and such. Then it’s our turn to do whatever they haven’t. This is a lot more efficient than trying to do everything ourselves.
If Austin Energy hasn’t already done so — perhaps because the homeowner lives out of their service area or for another reason — we look at the thermal envelope to see if there’s air leakage. In some homes, we add insulation. In others, where a door is off its hinges, for example, we repair it to seal up the leaks. We take out [incandescent] light bulbs and replace them with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).
In some homes, we replace older appliances. We might install a rain barrel for people to water their gardens. We also install faucet aerators and low-flow shower heads. If the toilet needs replacing, we put in a low-flush model. Or, if it’s newer, but not low-flush, we put something in the tank to displace water so not as much goes down the drain. And we insulate hot water heaters.
Each house is different, and it depends a lot on our volunteers. If we have a group of skilled carpenters, we can do a lot of repairs that other volunteers aren’t able to handle. If we have folks who haven’t done a lot of hands-on work, then we focus mainly on things like replacing light bulbs, installing new appliances, replacing shower heads, and adding faucet aerators.
BPGL: You say you install appliances. That has to be pretty expensive. How do you pay for that?
BRUNSON: Sears Commercial gives us a heavy discount on Energy Star appliances. The project raises the money for all the equipment we buy. Usually, the money comes from individuals and corporate underwriters. Donations are all tax-deductible, because A Nurtured World is the 501(c)3 entity that is the fiscal sponsor for Rays of Hope.
BPGL: How did you go about finding the participants in the project?
BRUNSON: In 2008, we used Meals on Wheels and More. We looked at their client list and asked them to do a screening to make sure they fit our list of criteria. At this time, we only assist homeowners. We haven’t figured out a way to make the project work for renters, unfortunately.
BPGL: I imagine there are a lot of people who would like to participate in the renewable energy project. How do you decide whose house to put the solar panels on?
BRUNSON: What we’ve found is that there are a lot more houses that need our services than meet the criteria for renewable energy. Part of our screening process is to do a Google Earth search to make sure that they aren’t shaded and will have a big enough roof for solar PV. For the houses that don’t meet that criteria, we give them energy retrofits.
BPGL: What are the limiting factors?
BRUNSON: The amount of work we can do is very much based on donations. It’s also somewhat limited by our personnel — our capability for putting on the workshops.
BPGL: Describe your workshops.
BRUNSON: We have two approaches. For the retrofits, we use volunteer labor. It’s like an energy-focused Habitat for Humanity. We bring in skilled leaders who teach the volunteers how to install certain appliances.
The solar photovoltaic workshops are one-day workshops led by professionals. We charge a small fee for attending the workshop, and that has worked fairly well. It’s a winning model.
The participants are generally upper and middle class people who are considering installing SPV or making a career change. Or they might be students in a solar energy installation program who need the hours to count for their degree. We have a big pool of participants who come for various reasons.
The other thing that helps draw people is that there’s not a lot being offered as far as a hands-on workshop in installing solar. Our workshop costs $300. The only comparable program is a more intensive, week-long seminar by Solar Energy International in Carbondale, Colorado. Theirs is $1,500. By contrast, ours is fairly affordable.
BPGL: How has the solar PV installation worked out?
BRUNSON: We’ve only done it once, so we’re somewhat untested. We installed a 3.2 kW system with 18 modules on a new house. It was purchased by a low-income family that’s been in house for just a few months. We want to get a full year of data and compare it to the energy efficiency of the house across the street. Both houses were built the same way, but the house across the street doesn’t have solar energy collectors. The houses were built with FlexCrete, and the duct work runs inside the conditioned space.
BPGL: Do you get any rebates for the energy-efficient changes you’re making?
BRUNSON: Austin Energy offers a $4.50/watt rebate for renewable energy installations. That takes a considerable chunk of cost out for us. There’s a federal legislative tax credit of 30%, but our constituents can’t take advantage of that because they don’t have a tax burden — their incomes are too low. And there’s no sales tax on the equipment, which is also a help.
BPGL: What is the typical cost of a retrofit?
BRUNSON: The retrofits typically cost between $1,000 and $1,200. We take advantage of several energy efficiency programs that help keep our costs down:
- Free weatherization from Austin Energy
- Free energy audits from Green Home Zone
- Free air conditioning system and duct cleaning, and repair from Ductz
- Rebates on water-saving devices and low-cost rain barrels from Austin Energy‘s water conservation program
The solar PV installations cost between $8,000 and $10,000 after rebate. We recover approximately half of that cost from the workshop tuition.
So, when all is said and done, each home receiving our full project services costs approximately $6,000.
BPGL: What kind of savings have the retrofitted houses seen?
BRUNSON: Some of the families have seen a 40 percent reduction in their energy costs.
BPGL: What are your plans for the future?
BRUNSON: We’ll work on 10 houses, and five of them will get solar PV installed. Hopefully, the project will grow a little each year.
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