Power Fund

OMLPS Energy Evaluation


Summary:

The Green EDGE Fund provided $5,000 to POWER as seed money to establish their offset program.  POWER weatherizes and insulates low-income and inefficient homes in Oberlin as a carbon offset program.  The amount provided was equivalent to insulating two homes given the insulation estimates provided by POWER.

Background:

There is growing consensus among climate scientists that the threat of climate change requires dramatic action to curb our greenhouse gases immediately.  For example, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said, "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."  For these reasons, Oberlin College has joined many other institutions of higher learning to commit to climate neutrality.

However, the lowest income bracket in Oberlin does not have the luxury of worrying about climate change.  Many citizens struggle to pay their utility bills, and rely on external sources such as the Caring Fund to help them avoid losing utility services.  Although they would benefit financially from insulating their homes, replacing old furnaces, or replacing inefficient appliances, the upfront cost of such investments makes these actions impossible.  As energy costs rise, it is Oberlin’s most vulnerable citizens who will be hurt the most.  Thus ironically, those who would benefit most from a maximally efficient home are least able to create such a living environment.

A financially sustainable program can be developed by capitalizing on the complementary needs of the low-income community and those concerned about climate change.  Low-income residents need an influx of capital to allow them to decrease their utility costs.  The decrease in utility usage also results in a decrease in carbon production, a commodity that is becoming increasingly valuable. To those concerned about climate change, preventing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere is worth money.  Currently, many Oberlin citizens (and for events such as graduation, Oberlin College) offset their unavoidable carbon emissions by purchasing “carbon credits.”  These investments help to finance windmills, methane gas-powered electricity plants, and other carbon-reducing projects around the country.  Unfortunately, all of this money leaves Oberlin.  Instead, this initiative would develop a locally based source of carbon credits; those who wish to offset their carbon can do so by helping to make low-income housing in Oberlin more energy efficient.  In doing so, they not only help reduce the emission of carbon; they also improve the lives of Oberlin’s most vulnerable citizens and the health of our local economy.

Before a local carbon offset program can be developed, two key pieces of groundwork must be laid.  First, we must develop an infrastructure for identifying high-need citizens and delivering efficiency services to them.  Second, we need to measure the carbon eliminated by the efficiency services, to develop a viable pricing structure for carbon credits.  To lay this groundwork, we are requesting funds to weatherize 10 low-income homes in Oberlin. 

The Board of Trustees of POWER will oversee the pilot program, and ultimately be responsible for the receipt and disbursement of funds (with Zion Community Development Corporation serving as fiscal agent).  The Board will have the responsibility of hiring and evaluating staff, selecting and hiring contractors, and guiding the program to fulfill the mission of POWER.  At the start of the project, the Board will hire a paid intern to serve as the administrator of the program.  This person will work closely with Doug McMillan to schedule inspections, keep track of utility data, and coordinate between homeowners and the contractor.   A Selection Committee of community members who come from or work with the low income community will review and prioritize all applications, and choose the 10 homes to be weatherized this year.  Participants will be prioritized based on need, factoring in financial status, the number of children and seniors living in the home, and the current efficiency of the home.  Efficiency of the home will be determined through utility bills and evaluation with an infrared camera (which makes visible the places where heat leaves the home).

Participants in the POWER pilot project will be solicited through existing organizations and networks (churches, Zion Community Development Corporation, Oberlin Community Services).  These organizations will be asked to identify homeowners in Oberlin with low incomes and high need for help with their home.

In consultation with Kathy Burns of Oberlin Community Services, interested citizens will complete a brief application form.  Kathy Burns is uniquely positioned in the community to help applicants because she already performs this role for other utility aid programs.  The application will mainly serve to verify that the homeowner qualifies for the program, and to indicate the level of need. The Selection Committee will finalize a list of 10 homes to be weatherized and insulated (with a “waiting list” of any additional homes, should any of the 10 homes prove to have structural problems that prevent their homes from being weatherized).

The project administrator will schedule inspections of these homes using the heat-loss inspection program already available through OMLPS.  The initial inspection will serve several purposes.  First, the inspector will ascertain that the home can in fact be insulated and weatherized without creating a safety hazard e.g. (houses with knob and tube wiring should not have cellulose insulation blown in, nor should houses with leaking roofs).  Second, the inspector will identify the scope of work that needs to be accomplished.  Finally, the inspector will discuss the findings and possible solutions with the homeowner, educating them about their options and making them active participants in the process.

A licensed and insured professional (selected by the Board of Trustees) will schedule the work day(s) directly with each customer.  Once the work has been completed, a second heat loss inspection will be performed.  The purpose of the second inspection is two-fold:  to ensure that the contracted work was completed satisfactorily, and to address any questions or issues the homeowner may have.  Once the inspector determines that the work has been completed to his/her and the homeowner’s satisfaction, the fiscal agent will be directed to pay the weatherization professional in full.

A thorough assessment of each home will occur after the work has been completed.  First, gas and electric bills will be tracked for a full calendar year, and compared to bills from the previous year, to quantify the monetary and fuel savings.  From this information, carbon savings will also be calculated.  Second, homeowners will be surveyed immediately after the completion of work, and 6 months later, to assess their satisfaction with the process and the work done on their home.

Cost-Benefit Estimation:

The total cost of this pilot project is $25,500 (note the Green EDGE Fund provided only $5,000, with the difference being covered by external sources). Costs incurred by this project include: contracted services (insulation and weatherization of homes); inspections; evaluation (measurement of energy savings, calculation of carbon savings, assessment of resident satisfaction, and collection of feedback); overhead costs (paid to fiscal agent and OCS); and administrative and office expenses. Note that inspections will be completed by OMLPS staff as part of their regular duties, and evaluation services will be donated by Oberlin College faculty and students. Because this project is funded as a sustainability grant, project savings will be accrued by households receiving from POWER Fund grants, and not recovered by the Green EDGE Fund.

Additional Benefits:

This project has the potential to benefit Oberlin College in several ways.  First, it is directly in line with Oberlin College’s commitment to climate neutrality and to the city of Oberlin.  Carbon offsetting will necessarily be an essential part of the college’s long-term efforts to become carbon neutral, as certain sources of carbon (ie travel) cannot be eliminated completely.  The POWER Fund provides the college a direct way to offset carbon and contribute to the community.  This will undoubtedly have positive effects on town-gown relationships, as well as make the city of Oberlin an economically healthier (and therefore more attractive) place to live.  Additionally, the POWER Fund has great potential for providing Oberlin College students with hands-on learning activities that enhance classroom instruction.  In the pilot phase, students will be involved in calculating the carbon saving and evaluating the success of the program.  We anticipate that student involvement will be a regular component of the program.  In sum, the POWER Fund offsets carbon, promotes economic justice, builds positive relationships within the community, creates a more attractive residential environment for faculty and staff, and provides meaningful educational experiences to Oberlin students.

Project press:

The Morning Journal profiles the POWER Fund, which is partly funded by EDGE (June 1, 2009)

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May 28, 2009, 9:15 AM
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