Home Energy Leaders Program: ‘HELP’-ing Southeast Alaskans save money and energy

Tackling energy loss can be difficult, in part, because it’s hard to see.

 

Energy creeps out through creaky door frames and window cracks in the form of heat loss. It is sucked out and drained by plugged-in but “off” appliances as phantom or “vampire energy.” Non-LED bulbs blaze through electrical energy at a cheetah pace. One element of energy loss though is easy to see: high utility bills.

The Home Energy Leaders Program (HELP), which is wrapping up its pilot season this week, aims to make simple energy saving solutions available to four rural Southeast communities.

HELP is hosted by the Renewable Energy Alaska Program and Southeast Conference, and supported by the Alaska Conservation Foundation, Hoonah Indian Association, the Inside Passage Electric Cooperative in Kake, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. Seven residents from Kake, Angoon, Hoonah and Yakutat were flown to Juneau in January to take a crash course training in energy efficiency and residential energy auditing. Four more, who were weathered out of the Juneau event, were trained later online. Once trained and paperwork was signed, energy leaders took to their home communities in March with surveys and resources like LED lights and weather stripping to audit interested neighbor’s homes.

Niccole Williams, of Hoonah, is one of those trained leaders and since early spring she’s audited more than 20 of her neighbors’ residences.

“I’ve gotten feedback from people who have taken my advice and changed to LED bulbs, used power strips and have done all the work that I’ve stressed during the audit and they actually did see a difference in their energy bill,” Williams said. “When they see me in town, people have literally stopped me and made a point to say, ‘Thank you so much for helping me save money!’ It’s a really great feeling.”

Williams in Hoonah and Russell James in Kake walked through a typical audit to help illustrate the process. Per home, five LED bulbs were provided and a power strip was given to encourage residents to turn off appliances when not in use to prevent vampire draw. “Many ‘smart’ appliances will draw 30 percent of full power in standby mode,” said Robert Venables, Executive Director for Southeast Conference. Auditors toured community member’s homes and offered advice, recorded information about appliances, sealed door jambs and window frames, tested water pressure in their faucets and when necessary, installed aerators to control flow and curb excess energy use.

For Williams, one of the more exciting elements of the work was realizing just how simple the steps to savings can be.

“You can save money on your bill by just changing to LED light bulbs and putting things on power strips. It’s really that easy,” he said.

According to Chris Rose, Executive Director for the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), those simple steps start to add up across the state. REAP estimates that Alaskans waste $1 billion annually on unintended energy loss. The State of Alaska has a long history of subsidizing residential energy bills in rural communities through the Rural Power Cost Equalization program. With tightening purse strings, wasting energy and wasting money is increasingly painful for not only individual families, but the state as well. According to Rep. Jonathan Kriess-Tomkins, D-Sitka, the $1 billion Alaskans dish out each year in wasted energy could fund the Alaska Marine Highway System for a decade.

“We feel like this is a huge drain on the economy and if we can begin to plug that gap we’ll do a number of things,” Rose said. “We’ll save the money of course and that money will stay in the local economy and be multiplied and be useful many times before it leaves the state but, we can also create jobs. These jobs, don’t require a super high level of training and there are many people around the state who can do this kind of retrofit.”

Investing in local capacity, according to Southeast Conference and REAP, is exactly what made HELP novel. The two organizations have partnered to bring auditors to rural communities to assess residences, commercial buildings and even fishing vessels for years but in 2018, the partners wanted to try something different.

“We conceived this program that would help people weatherize their homes and also develop local human capacity so there are people in these communities in Southeast Alaska who understand energy efficiency more and are able on an ongoing basis to help people in the community do real basic things to save energy,” Rose said.

With funding from the Alaska Conservation Foundation, HELP was born.

“The outside auditor being the expert and telling you what to do has a limited effectiveness and lasts for a very short time. When we invest in a community leader, that knowledge continues to circulate like currency and the multiplier effect brings a lasting benefit,” Venables said.

Investing in local capacity can be a slower process according to REAP and Southeast Conference. The organizations are in the process of compiling a final report on the project, but overall HELP fell short in hitting its ambitious target of over 100 homes audited. Less than 50 residences have received audits so far. In part, according to Rose and Venables this was due to inconvenient timing. By the time auditors were trained, geared up on the ground and ready to go, fishing season had picked up and seasonal work and commitments and responsibilities were draining time from leaders and from neighbors who would have benefited from an audit. REAP also thinks messaging, outreach and the$25 participation fee were challenges.

“Some communities, like Hoonah, nearly completed their goal. Others communities barely budged,” Rose said. “We are assessing how this pilot year went, what worked well, what are lessons learned and we are not sure how we will proceed but we know it makes sense to train local people to help community members.”

Making energy more equitable, affordable and sustainable is an iterative process. It takes time, adaptation and patience. The group are now re-formulating what shape HELP will take in the future. According to Southeast Conference and REAP, success is not limited to the number of homes audited.

Back in Hoonah, Williams was so inspired by her work with the HELP program that she’s not only continuing to spread word about energy efficiency with neighbors in Hoonah where she was born and raised, she’s working to continue her energy education. University of Alaska Fairbanks-Bristol Bay offers a Sustainable Energy Occupational Endorsement Certificate that Williams is seeking funding to pursue online this autumn.


• Bethany Goodrich is a freelance reporter, and the Communications Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.


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