Culture Change Drives Environmental Improvement

“What I’m doing is socially engineering organizations by working with employees so they can shift their company culture and drive business performance — and even personal performance,” says Elizabeth Frisch, president of Culture Technologies, Inc. and director of development for A Nurtured World.“

Elizabeth Frisch of Culture Technologies and A Nurtured World

Elizabeth Frisch of Culture Technologies and A Nurtured World

One of the things we’re committed to is inspiring people, enrolling them, and getting them connected with their passions in the workplace. This is just like we do on the consumer side with A Nurtured World, getting people to commit to green living in their home, so that being environmental is not about suffering, deprivation, and “something else that is on my To-Do list.” Instead, you create space around it, so that it’s this open frontier. There’s all this possibility!”

Culture Technologies is working with the Dallas Cowboys to green their new Cowboy Stadium, a topic you’ll read about in tomorrow’s post. Today, we talk with Elizabeth about how Culture Technologies helps businesses become more environmentally responsible through culture change. We spoke with Frisch from her office in Austin, Texas.

FRISCH: We founded Culture Technologies, Inc. back in 2002. I joke that I’m a recovering chemical engineer. I really thought that I could design things so that they work, and if I just did the process complete enough, or made the project perfect enough, that it would be implementable, and it would happen, and people would do it, and it would get done.

I started my career back in the late ’80s, and one of the things over the years that kept coming up for me was, no matter how well I designed something, no matter how well I designed the product, no matter how perfect my work product was, if people didn’t do it, use it, take it on, or commit to it, it was a failure. It was a waste of money for my clients.

And so, I had one of those “Aha!” moments that something was missing. And what was missing was, we kind of treat people as functions in a process instead of living, breathing, non-predictable beings. We put a lot of emphasis on designing out the human element. We think, If we just put enough systems in place, the mistakes, or why people don’t do what they should, will go away. But the reality of it is, you can’t design that out. All of our organizational systems are made up of people.

BPGL: You’re the director of development for A Nurtured World, founded by Susan Roothaan. How did the two of you begin working together?

FRISCH: I met Susan in the 2000-01 time frame. She had been doing a lot of research on how to get consumers to change behavior, and I had been consulting on changing people’s behavior at their company. What we realized was, we were both using some robust techniques, tools, and models to help people get power over their own ability to change their behavior as well as transform others’.

A Nurtured World workshop participants install a gutter on a home.

A Nurtured World workshop participants work together on a home project.

Susan had set up A Nurtured World as a nonprofit in 1997 to work with the consumer, but we wanted to take it a step further and help organizations do the same thing.

BPGL: Why organizations, when Susan was already doing personal change workshops?

FRISCH: What’s the biggest thing people always yell out about their job? “It’s bureaucracy! The system or company won’t let me do it.” There’s this thing called “organizational culture” that people say is the reason why things aren’t going the way they should. So we started developing techniques we had already been using with clients, but hadn’t really created as a product in themselves, to start going in and actually working to shift organizational culture.

We worked hard our first couple of years out just to get all those models in place that define how you shift culture, and how you inspire people, and how you have enrollment conversations, and how you get people to make commitments and have integrity, and all those things that are required to have an organization that’s transformational and can do amazing things around the environment.

That was the birth of it. Although I say I’m a recovering chemical engineer, I spend most of my career doing social engineering now. I love my engineering background. It’s been amazing, because when you work in environmental stuff, you’re dealing with science, you need it just as much.

BPGL: When you say that you’re changing behavior, you sound like a psychological, behavioral engineer, rather than a chemical engineer. How did you get into the psychological end of this?

FRISCH: It was more from a fascination in my own personality with what makes people tick. I’ve always been curious about human nature in general. I also have been very frustrated with myself about when I can’t change something, as to why I can’t change. And so I started doing research of my own on what’s missing. I’m an engineer, I’ve got to have the data. I started reading books and talking with people. Then I met Susan. She had a consumer conservation model she was using, and I thought, This makes sense and works!

BPGL: What’s behind the name of your company, Culture Technologies?

FRISCH: We help people understand the nature of culture. My mom used to tell me that “no” was the start of negotiations for me. I literally came out of the womb that way. That’s a pretty unique trait, I’ve discovered. For most people, “no” is no, and they quit. And if you’re going to do anything transforming culture or dealing with a bureaucracy or creating any kind of social change, “no” is a really common answer.


You're not changing the status quo, if you're not getting resistance.

One of the other things that we do is help give people who are working in organizations a deep understanding of culture, in general, but specifically their culture. We actually help them identify their culture in black and white. It gives them some power of understanding and room to take action. It’s just the nature of culture to resist change. People make resistance wrong, but resistance is great! You’re not up to anything if you’re not hitting a resistance. You’re not changing the status quo, if you’re not getting resistance. We do exercises around changing people’s relationship with resistance and with getting told “no.”

We’ve made getting told “no” into a failure. Failure is looked at as wrong! But Susan and I have created exercises we hope free people from letting failures stop them. It gives them a context to see what failure really is, so they can just let it go. If you want to be up to social change, it’s not a perfect path to enlightenment. If it were, we’d all be in heaven right now. We’re creating people who can lead, no matter what their job title and what circumstances they find themselves in.

BPGL: How do the companies you work with use your trainings to improve performance?

FRISCH: Companies can use our training to drive performance in any aspect of their organization. But our passion is driving environmental performance. We want to make a difference in footprint reduction on the environment. So we’ve taken all those models we’ve developed, and we use them very specifically to drive environmental performance improvement.

For example, we helped Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) put in their commute-solutions program to get employees out of their cars, even when gas prices are low. We were getting them out of their cars before gas prices went up, and we’re continuing to do that after prices have come down. It’s those kinds of tangibles, like getting people to actually choose to do the desirable behavior and get measurable positive outcome.

BPGL: Have you worked with any municipalities?

FRISCH: One of the projects we just finished is that we worked on a contract for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They’re the environmental regulatory agency here in Texas. We helped 11 cities implement a performance-based environmental management system around their operations. The cities of Waco, Lubbock, and Austin, and eight cities in the Dallas/Fort Worth area went through that process with us. It took about a year. Cities are reducing their carbon footprints, too. It just makes sense.

Culture Technologies is working with Dallas and 10 other Texas cities.

Culture Technologies is working with Dallas and 10 other Texas cities.

Businesses got savvy to going green earlier, because they have a profit base. Now cities are dealing with strapped budgets and high fuel prices, and other things. They’re finally realizing that they have to do the same processes that businesses have to do in order to keep their employees and keep growing and keep providing the quality of service. A city is a business, but it’s in the business of keeping their residents’ quality of life high.

It was a coached approach, so each city had a certain number of staff that they volunteered to come to the classes, and we would coach them, provide models, and practice what they learned. They would get homework, and we would do workdays and site days.

BPGL: How are you assessing the impact of your work with these cities?

FRISCH: We’re just getting to the measurement phase this year. Our goal was to get all 11 cities into the Clean Texas program, which requires them to commit to environmental goals and carbon footprint reductions. One of our first measurements is that all 11 cities are supposed to get into the Clean Texas program in the next three months. Then, annually thereafter, they report their outcomes and what they’ve accomplished. So by March or April, I’ll have the metric of how many actually did it and what exactly they committed to. Then one year later, we’ll get their measurables and see what they’ve accomplished.

People shy away from measurement. That’s one of the reasons I think environmental activities have not gotten the attention or respect they should. If you don’t measure it, you can’t prove it. And when you’re dealing with something that’s business– or money-based, you’ve got to be able to put it into those terms. Or else, it wasn’t really successful.

For social change programs, too, one of the things Susan and I work on for organizations is, How do you measure that it improved? Even on warm and fuzzy stuff, you still have to figure out a concrete way of measuring behavior change. So what do we measure? Susan just did a grant project that was all around, How do you measure? What do you measure? Is it working? Well, you can say, the traditional measurements are, We contacted so many people, or We handed so many of these out, or This many people took this home. But that doesn’t say whether it resulted in a change in behavior. That just measures that you put knowledge out there.

BPGL: So, how do you measure change?


Getting a measure of recycling is straightforward.

FRISCH: That depends on the behavior. If it’s an easy behavior change like recycling, it’s a real easy measurement. How many people are recycling? How much are they recycling? Is it going up? That’s a very straightforward one, because you can measure pounds. But, if it’s a social change, you can ask, How many people are now routinely donating to an organization? There are other behaviors you have to look at and quantify.

I think this next generation of environmental performance is going to come from organizations who recognize that true sustainability and long-term performance improvement will only happen if the culture supports it. Otherwise, things will just keep going back to the status quo. It’s exciting to be a part of the process supporting that shift for organizations and use my “engineering” skills in ways I never imagined.

Part 1: Culture Change Drives Environmental Improvement (Top of Page)

Part 2: Dallas Cowboys Go Blue (for a Greener Stadium)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts:

Improve Quality of Life by Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values

Renewable Energy: A Tool for Social Equity

My 5: Susan Roothan, A Nurtured World

January 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, My 5, Texas

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BPGL: What are the five most important things we can do to save the planet?

1. Slow down — inside and out. Pay attention to your families. Educate your kids. Don’t rush to the store every five minutes. Don’t run out when you’re bored.

Susan Roothaan, A Nurtured World

Susan Roothaan, A Nurtured World

2. Be accountable. Do something measurable. Quit talking about it and do it. There’s a lot of talking and not a lot of This is what I’m going to do and by when.

3. Contribute to others. Engage others in taking action. Give your knowledge away.

4. Hit the big ones: Driving, energy, and food. That’s what’s going to make a difference.

5. Think. Use your brain. It’s a great way to reduce your footprint.

Susan Roothaan

Executive Director, A Nurtured World

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Improve Quality of Life by Lowering Your Carbon Footprint

Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values

Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century

Five Things We Can Do to Save the Planet

Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values

People at all income levels can make changes to save energy and reduce their footprint.

People at all income levels can make changes to save energy and reduce their footprint.Photo: Courtesy A Nurtured Worl

“It doesn’t matter if you think you’re an environmentalist,” says Susan Roothaan, executive director of A Nurtured World, “your footprint isn’t proportional to your opinions and views, but to your income level. I’ve seen some conservatives with lower carbon footprints than radical leftists. People’s actions don’t always follow their opinions.”

Roothaan’s nonprofit provides workshops for both high- and low-income families, to help them reduce expenses by reducing their carbon footprints. What follows is part two of a two-part interview with Roothan, where we continue the discussion about A Nurtured World. — Publisher

BPGL: The Rays of Hope project (see Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity), which is under the umbrella of your 501(c)3, focuses on families with limited incomes. Are you having as great an effect with upper-income families?

ROOTHAN: The people who need to drop their footprint the most are the upper-income people, so we started with a focus on them. And it’s working.

The family living in this home reduced their footprint by 2.1 tons each year.

The family living in this home reduced their footprint by 2.1 tons each year.

I’m a chemical engineer and a measurement nut. I talk to 15 percent of our workshop participants afterward to find out what they’ve done, so I have detailed knowledge of their actions. Measuring not only tells us how our programs are doing, but it also makes an impact on the workshop participant. When they see that their actions cause measurable results, it motivates more action.

BPGL: What caused you to add workshops for people in lower income groups?

ROOTHAAN: We began to work with people in lower-income groups to help them save money. There are a couple of reasons that we became excited about working with them. One is how much of a difference we’re making in their lives. For example, our partners in Meals on Wheels tell us that some of these families are forced to choose between energy and food. Our program has made it easier for them to meet their expenses.

The hope in this country is that everyone can become upper income. What A Nurtured World provides is a way to increase fulfillment without increasing your footprint. As people improve their economic position in society, we teach them how to do it in a way that adds a lot of fulfillment but not a lot of carbon footprint.

BPGL: Give an example of how that works.

Repairing duct leaks reduces home energy bills.

Repairing duct leaks reduces home energy bills.

ROOTHAAN: One thing we work on is helping people cut back how much money they spend. When people spend money, they usually think, I’m spending $10, not I had to work x amount of time to earn the money to pay for this. We teach people to shift how they look at money, to think of it as time. We ask them, “When you spend $10 at a fast food place, how long do you have to work to earn that?”

We show people that they don’t just have to work long enough to earn $10; they also have to pay tax on the money they earn. So, if they earn $10 an hour, they really work longer than an hour to pay for the item. When you spend, you need to ask, Is it worth the time I gave for that thing?

As Vicki Robin says in Your Money or Your Life, spending is not just giving away money, it’s giving away your life energy.

BPGL: That’s an important lesson that every kid should learn.

ROOTHAAN: I agree. One of my attendees suggested we take what we teach to adults and correlate it to the school system in Texas, so we’ve started a professional development program to train teachers on how to teach their students these concepts.

BPGL: How do you translate the workshop information to something meaningful for kids?

ROOTHAAN: We took a look at the Texas state standards, which are very prescriptive, and adapted our curriculum to middle school. We kept the heart of it, but shored it up to show the connections that make it relevant to the kids.

Check the energy rating on new appliances before you buy.

Check the energy rating on new appliances before you buy.

We adapt the money versus time issue to kids by asking, If you buy a CD for $14, how many times do you have to mow the lawn to pay for it? And we teach this in a way that meets an algebra standard. We look at what the kids are learning and figure out an activity to connect it to.

BPGL: How widespread is your teacher-training program?

ROOTHAAN: We’re working with 6th- through 8th-grade teachers of math, science, and English. Right now we’re only in Texas, but we’ll soon be doing programs in Oklahoma and Arizona.

We’ve also started to develop a program for second-grade teachers. I’m interested in science and environment being real for people, so it’s not this environment OUT THERE, like a nature preserve, but right here, right now, where it makes a difference. When you’re little and see a picture of a bird, that picture isn’t part of you. It’s “out there”; it isn’t real to you.

In second grade, the kids learn through hands-on experience about the effort it takes to move things. So the teachers have the kids load up little trucks with something heavy, like gravel, and something light, like cotton balls. We let them push the little trucks to see which takes more effort to move. Then we take the students outside to look at real trucks and get them to think about which ones require more gas to move. We get them to see it firsthand so it becomes real to them.

BPGL: How are the school programs funded?

ROOTHAAN: We have support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has been our lifeblood in many ways. One of the first people at EPA who believed in us and saw what we could do was Joy Campbell.

Installing an attic fan can cut your home energy bills and your carbon footprint.

Installing an attic fan can cut your home energy bills and your carbon footprint.

BPGL: It seems that what you’re doing is as much about clarifying one’s values as it is about environmentalism.

ROOTHAAN: An interesting question that we raise — primarily with middle and upper-income groups — is, “How much of what I spend goes to fulfillment versus waste? In over 1,000 people so far, we’re hearing that it’s roughly 50 percent before the workshop. This is a huge place where most environmental groups are not working.

By rethinking before we spend, and spending only for things that provide actual fulfillment, we also reduce our ecological footprint. Mathis Wakernagel and William Rees first put forth the concept of the ecological footprint in 1992. In 2003, experts calculated that the earth’s carrying capacity was about 1.8 global hectares (4.4 acres) per person. Meanwhile, the average American’s ecological footprint is about 9.6 global hectares (23.7 acres) per person for resource use and waste absorption.

BPGL: We’re very out of balance. Certainly, we all need to make changes in our lifestyles.

ROOTHAAN: The good news is that giving up a fair portion of our footprint isn’t much of a hardship for many people. If what we give up isn’t providing us with fulfillment, then giving it up is actually a freedom.

Installing the right amount of insulation is a wise investment.

Installing the right amount of insulation is a wise investment that will lower your home energy use. Photo: Courtesy A Nurtured World

However, when you start looking at lower income groups, reducing your footprint can be a hardship, especially if it means giving up food. That’s why the Rays of Hope/One House project is so exciting. We help people lower their energy footprint so they have that extra money for food. Dropping your footprint when you can’t eat isn’t something you want to think about. Many people in lower income groups say, “Listen, I don’t want to give anything up.” Yet, for a lot of people in middle- and upper income groups, it’s freeing. If you can give up the clutter before you’re forced to, you’re ahead of the game.

BPGL: What would you say to our readers if they were in your workshop today?

ROOTHAN: I would ask each of your readers — and you — to commit to a specific change right now. So if you liked what you learned from this article, commit to and implement something to save money, drop your footprint, and improve your level of fulfillment. I encourage you all to email me with your commitment at Make it your New Year’s resolution.

Part 1: Improve Quality of Life by Lowering Your Carbon Footprint
Part 2: Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts:

Tailgating for a Common Green Purpose

Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity

Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century

Improve Quality of Life by Lowering Your Carbon Footprint

Roothaan demonstrates that reducing your footprint can be as easy as composting leftovers from a backyard barbecue. Photo: Courtesy Susan Roothaan

Roothaan demonstrates that reducing your footprint can be as easy as composting leftovers from a backyard barbecue. Photo: Courtesy Susan Roothaan

Of the three terms most associated with environmentalism at the consumer level — Rethink, Reuse, Recycle — the first one is probably the most overlooked. Yet, according to Susan Roothaan, founder and executive director of A Nurtured World, rethinking how we spend our money can have a huge impact on the environment. It can also increase our quality of life.

It might be surprising to learn how easily the average person in an industrialized nation can make changes to reduce our carbon footprints. Want to learn how to reduce yours? Roothaan’s workshop teaches how to improve your quality of life and save money all while reducing your impact on the planet.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) talked with Roothaan from her home office in Austin, Texas, and later met her at the Bears/Packers tailgate I wrote about yesterday (see Tailgating for a Common Green Purpose). What follows is part one of a two-part series. — Publisher

BPGL: Your environmental work combines ecology and economy. How did you get interested in the combination of the two?

ROOTHAAN: For 20 years, I worked to help businesses, industries, and the military reduce their waste output. They call it “pollution prevention.” You’re reducing something at its source versus cleaning up at the end. This is also being a good businessperson.

So I did a lot of thinking about how this would apply to the consumer sector. When I first started this nonprofit, consumer environmentalism was in its infancy. I realized that the model of environmentalism for the consumer is that it’s saving money. Most people think it’s just going and buying a more expensive product [to reduce energy use]. But if you’re really going to be green, it’s about being frugal — how to get more fulfillment out of fewer resources and less waste.

Then I started to think about what was the mission, or product, of an individual. One of the things we do — and this is what started A Nurtured World — we developed a workshop that caused people to fundamentally change their behavior. It caused them to look at what’s important to them, as well as how they’re spending their money.

BPGL: What do participants learn in your workshops?

ROOTHAAN: In the workshops, we teach that the top three consumer impacts on the environment are transportation, food consumption, and home energy use. If you’re going to change your behavior, it’s good to know what the big impacts are. And, according to the US Consumer Bureau Statistics, the top areas of spending are transportation, home, and eating. So, if you want to protect the environment, then be cheap.

Workshop participants checking in.

Workshop participants checking in.

We partnered with the military and gave a series of three workshops at Fort Hood with the soldiers and their spouses. Most of the people were not environmentalists, but it was really great. We measured the results of our workshop, and the average participant is saving $1,500 per year.

On average, Americans produce about 20 tons of carbon per person per year. If you remember, a couple years ago, Sting did a concert to raise awareness and tried to get everyone to reduce their carbon footprints by a ton and a half a year. Our workshop participants each reduced their footprint by two tons per year.

BPGL: How do you get people to make such a big shift in behavior?

ROOTHAAN: A lot of the footprint reduction we see is the result of being more conscious about what you’re choosing to do and asking if it’s leading to what you really want in life. It’s all about cost vs. payoff. We look at what’s important to them. Mostly we hear them say family and religion, God, and faith. These are two areas that are really important to people.

We get them to look at how they spend their money. A lot of spending is not done consciously. We work with people to let go of things that don’t lead to fulfillment.

It’s moving to me to see the results some of these people make. I’ve heard comments like, “I’m saving $50 a month now, and I wasn’t saving anything before.” That kind of money makes a difference to soldiers. Another attendee remarked, “Things are much more harmonious [in my home].” She indicated that her family was finally paying off debt and had money now for family vacations.

We didn’t start with the intention to help people save money, but that really is very meaningful for people on a day-to-day basis.

BPGL: That’s interesting, to approach environmentalism through personal finances. It sounds like a very positive way to make behavioral change.

ROOTHAAN: In 2002, when I started this, we hadn’t had [Hurricane] Katrina or Al Gore’s movie. Now the consciousness is changing; people really care about the environment. But they were always pushed back by [environmental leaders] saying, “You’re bad and wrong.” There was not a lot of space for someone who had never done anything to start doing something about the environment. People may not know what to do, but the desire to do something is really strong.

Roothaan asks participants to consider their purpose, then make changes accordingly.

Roothaan asks participants to consider their purpose, then make changes accordingly.

BPGL: So, your approach requires people to look at the way they spend money. Anything else?

ROOTHAAN: We’re hitting on three things: commitment to the environment, saving money, and having a life that’s more fulfilling. Different people are motivated by different things. If we’re teaching a higher-income person, money may not be their motivation. Their motivation might be that they want to leave a better place for their kids. Or they may decide that harming the environment is inconsistent with their faith.

BPGL: Recently, we ran an article about Rays of Hope (see Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity), which is one of the projects under the umbrella of A Nurtured World. How does the Rays of Hope project tie in with your workshops?

ROOTHAAN: In Rays of Hope, we upgrade low-income homes. What we’ve done is to take ideas from the workshop and build them into the retrofit. We’re not doing just a physical retrofit, but also teaching the homeowners to make behavioral changes with information from our workshop.

My interest is in shifting behavior for all people in a way that gives them great lives. Months to years after the workshop, some of the participants have told me, “I’m spending more time with my family than I did before.” Because they’ve got their money under control, they now have more time for what matters to them.

In some cases, they realize that instead of spending their time working for the money to acquire things, then spending time maintaining those things, they’re now spending time “being” with their family. It could be that, through the workshop, they got clear on what’s most important to them: their family, not their stuff.

Part 1: Improve Quality of Life by Lowering Your Carbon Footprint (Top of Page)
Part 2: Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts:

Tailgating for a Common Green Purpose

Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity

Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century

Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity

Rays of Hope volunteers relax after a successful solar PV installation. Photo: Rays of Hope

Rays of Hope volunteers relax after a successful solar PV installation. Photo: Rays of Hope

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?

Solar panels being installed on the roof of a Rays of Hope project.

Solar panels being installed on the roof of a Rays of Hope project. Photo Courtesy: Rays of Hope

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.

Effie Brunson, development director and founder, Rays of Hope

Effie Brunson, development director and founder, Rays of Hope. Photo Courtesy: Effie Brunson

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.

Mike Frisch founder of 1 House at a Time, now combined with Rays of Hope. Photo Courtesy: Rays of Hope

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).

Replacing an air conditioner for a Rays of Hope home.

Replacing an air conditioner for a Rays of Hope home. Photo Courtesy: Rays of Hope

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.

The Martinez family gets a new refrigerator from Rays of Hope.

The Martinez family gets a new refrigerator from Rays of Hope.

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.

Workers relax after installing solar panels on a Rays of Hope home.

Workers relax after installing solar panels on a Rays of Hope home. Photo Courtesy: Rays of Hope

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:

  1. Free weatherization from Austin Energy
  2. Free energy audits from Green Home Zone
  3. Free air conditioning system and duct cleaning, and repair from Ductz
  4. 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.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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