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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Power Shift - Promoting Weatherization Projects

Air Date: Week of
Weatherization workers pump insulation into the walls of Ray Morin's Roxbury home. (Photo: Jeff Young)

Home weatherization and energy efficiency are supposed to be the “low hanging fruit” in the effort to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But at the ground level in Boston, Massachusetts, insulating homes and installing efficient lighting and appliances wasn’t always so easy. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on how one of the country’s greenest cities is working to overcome language barriers, layers of bureaucracy and other complications that get in the way of efficiency efforts.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Weatherizing homes and businesses to boost energy efficiency is a no-brainer. Especially when Congress pumped five billion dollars of stimulus money into weatherization programs just three years ago. Insulation, efficient appliances and new lighting not only save energy, they also reduce the emission of climate changing gases. But despite the big federal bucks, weatherizing a building is easier said than done; there’s bureaucracy and cultural barriers to contend with. A case study is Boston, which is where Living on Earth’s Jeff Young takes us in this report.


YOUNG: It took three tries, but Ray Morin is finally seeing insulation pumped into the walls of his home in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. Morin helps out with a sustainable living awareness day at his local farmer’s market. That’s where he heard about the Renew Boston program to weatherize houses. He thought he’d do his part to cut energy use in his 1935 vintage home.


MORIN: For me it was a green, environmental thing. But if you can do that and save money at the same time, (laughs) you take advantage of it.

Skippy White has seen some major changes in music since he opened his record shop back fifty-one years ago, and “we’ve seen a lot of changes in electric bills too.” (Photo: Christy Perera)

YOUNG: The city program would cover most of the cost to insulate his attic and some spaces between walls. A home energy assessment showed he’d recover his costs in just over two years by saving money on utilities. But the inspection also revealed a problem.

MORIN: They have to do these big tests because once they seal the house all up they worry about higher levels of carbon monoxide.

YOUNG: Morin’s stove wasn’t venting properly, so he had some work to do. The energy assessment team came back and found another problem. This time it was the flue on Morin’s furnace.

MORIN: The flue was collapsing so I had replaced the whole, entire chimney. That was 1,700 dollars and then we moved forward.

YOUNG: Sounds like a lot more than you bargained for when you said, ‘hey, I’ll get the house weatherized’?

MORIN: Yeah, yeah. So I went in to save money and in the end I actually probably spent more than if I’d just done nothing. (Laughs)


YOUNG: Morin says he needed to repair the stove and chimney anyway, so he still considers it a good deal. But he imagines most people would probably not take on such additional costs.

Morin’s experience offers a glimpse into the unexpected problems that crop up with weatherization projects. Even though energy experts rank Boston among the nation’s greenest cities, efficiency improvements remain a struggle.

Dorchester resident Liles Smith in front of her newly-weatherized
triple-decker home. (Photo: Jeff Young)

One reason is that Boston is a city of renters—about 65 percent of the population rents living space. And the renter-landlord relationship is a tough one for efficiency efforts. Just ask landlady Lily Smith.

SMITH: The biggest piece is, you have no idea how I had to chase the tenants.

YOUNG: Smith’s home in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood is a triple-decker—the three level, wooden apartment houses that dominate much of the city’s housing stock. Smith has lived on the second floor of her house for 33 years, renting the other floors. She heard about the Boston weatherization project from a friend at a church service.

SMITH: I run into all my friends at wakes and funerals, it’s about the only place I go! As a matter of fact that’s where I heard about this, I was at a wake and this friend of mine was there and said, ‘Did you hear about such and such?’


YOUNG: Smith got new insulation, weather-sealed basement doors, and a high-efficiency heating unit for the first floor apartment—much of it at reduced or no cost to her.

SMITH: Here’s the heating room. This is the new one that has been put in. And they did a wonderful job.

YOUNG: But it wasn’t easy. Each occupant qualified for weatherization assistance under different programs, because of their different income levels. That meant dealing with different layers of bureaucracy and a lot of paperwork her tenants had little interest in filling out.

SMITH: A lot of people are reluctant to divulge that information. So it’s going back and saying, ‘Hey, here’s the paperwork. I printed it out for you, I put in all of the information that I can put in, I’ve taken it as far as I can. And, did you sign it?’ ‘Oh I’m going to get around to it.’ So that is more the hang-up than the homeowner themselves, trust me.

YOUNG: Smith is satisfied with the work done on her house. But she doubts that many of her neighbors would jump through the bureaucratic hoops she did. And Smith’s situation is fairly simple compared to what Betsy Cowan faces in her neighborhood in Roxbury’s Egleston Square.

Boston’s Egleston Square, where English is not the primary language for many small business owners. (Photo: Christy Perera)


YOUNG: Cowan is the cheerful, energetic director of Egleston Square’s Main Street program.

COWAN: Egleston Square is a diverse neighborhood both economically and also ethnically. The majority of the merchants, over 75 percent of them, are merchants of color and 66 percent of them are immigrants from a variety of different countries. Fifty percent of them are from the Dominican Republic, and the rest are from Africa, Asia and Europe.


YOUNG: Cowan leads me on a tour of businesses that took part in an energy efficiency retrofit program. Most, like Manuel Feliz’s shop, Boston Express, got new lighting.

FELIZ (IN SPANISH) with COWAN (TRANSLATING): So they reviewed the whole lighting system and they changed all of the lights so they’d be more efficient.”

Manuel Feliz owns Boston Express, a financial services company. His energy bill declined after he installed more efficient lighting in the business. (Photo: Christy Perera)


YOUNG: It’s a similar story at Samuel Moreno’s Barber Shop.

MORENO (IN SPANISH) with COWAN (TRANSLATING): So they changed the base for the lights and they also changed the lightbulbs.

YOUNG And are you noticing a difference in your electric bill?


Moreno’s Barber Shop has trimmed is electricity bills. (Photo: Christy Perera)


YOUNG: Cowan’s thorough knowledge of the neighborhood—its culture, quirks and language—meant she was able to let business owners know about the program and guide them through the process.

COWAN: Saluda!

YOUNG: So do you know everybody here?

COWAN: It’s my job. (LAUGHS) And it’s a great neighborhood.

Betsy Cowan, the Executive Director of Egleston Square Main Street, says small business benefit from efficiency upgrades but getting the word out takes time. (Photo: Christy Perera)

YOUNG: An analysis of the Renew Boston program found that having a trusted community group like Cowan’s act as an intermediary is crucial when dealing with immigrant populations or those for whom English is a second language.


YOUNG: Egleston Liquors owner Solomon Lemma got new lighting and a new thermostat system for his store. Lemma says small business owners are busy and wary.

LEMMA: There are so many things, there are so many gimmicks going on saying, ‘we’ll save you money, we’ll do this.’ So, ‘just stay away from me,’ there’s a feeling like that. You have to talk to them deep, you know. They don’t understand it.

Small business owner Solomon Lemma says that his customers have noticed the improved lighting, while he’s been enjoying the lower electricity bills. (Photo: Christy Perera)


YOUNG: Despite Cowan’s tireless efforts, only 15 of Egleston Square’s 85 shop owners have signed up for the efficiency program. Language barriers, cultural differences, renter-landlord relations—all these take time to work through. But time is running out on many of the efficiency programs that depended on federal stimulus money.

COWAN: That’s one of the things that we’re recommending is please give us another opportunity to do this, because, when you think about what are the programs that would generate additional jobs and revenue this is, I think, this is one of them. So that’s my humble recommendation!


YOUNG: Renew Boston got six and a half million dollars in a federal block grant through the stimulus. The city used it to sweeten the incentives already offered by utility company partners, who subsidize efficiency programs.

Boston’s Chief of Environmental and Energy Services, Jim Hunt, says preliminary figures show about eight thousand homes received energy audits and 17 hundred completed weatherization—about double the rate before the stimulus money.

HUNT: The results I think are very strong, particularly if you factor in that we’re going after the harder to reach, harder to serve populations.

Thanks to lighting upgrades, Moreno can trim his loyal clients' hair even closer. (Photo: Christy Perera)

YOUNG: The stimulus spending on weatherization and efficiency has come under fire in Washington. In Congress, the House committee on government oversight issued a blistering report alleging fraud and abuse. And the Department of Energy’s

inspector general found examples of waste and shoddy work in some states. Hunt acknowledges there were some problems but says the programs are wise investments.

HUNT: When you look at some of the work that’s happening in our cities, when you look at the issues of energy cost, greenhouse gas emissions, and just helping create jobs through the green economy, I think this is money well spent.

YOUNG: Hunt says Boston will build on what’s been learned about how to get the city’s diverse neighborhoods weatherized and efficient. And the city will still be able to cover some costs for home and business owners. But with the flow of federal dollars slowing, weatherization programs around the country will face a harsh fiscal climate. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Boston.



Boston Weatherization Evaluation


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