Climate Solutions
News | May 16, 2024

Patching holes: WERiSE advances energy equity in Alabama

Experts say patching holes is the most cost-effective dollar you can spend while doing energy efficiency upgrades on your home. (Getty)

Southern households pay some of the highest monthly energy bills nationwide.

One of the highest rates in the entire country is in Alabama, where residents spend, on average, $179 every month. Aside from switching to more abundant resources like solar, wind, and battery storage, energy efficiency is one of the most effective ways to provide relief to families struggling to manage monthly bills and energy use. Updating homes to reduce energy use through improvements like air sealing and weather stripping can save homeowners hundreds of dollars a year.

WERiSE, or Weatherizing Every Residence in the Southeast, is a weatherization joint initiative of the People’s Justice Council and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, that is working to help solve this challenge in the state and beyond. The initiative aims to address the barrier of the upfront costs of home energy renovation and weatherization and train residents to service their communities.

Chandra Taylor-Sawyer, leader of SELC’s Environmental Justice Initiative, chats with Reverend Michael Malcom, Executive Director of The People’s Justice Council, on the WERiSE initiative and how it’s helping communities alleviate energy burden, modernize homes, and combat the climate crisis. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chandra: As the climate warms across the South and energy burdens increase, especially in states like Alabama, how does this program help improve the lives of families and homeowners?

Michael: Until the first energy crisis in the 1970s, no one had ever bothered studying how buildings and homes consumed energy. Once they started studying how homes are actually built, they quickly discovered that the average home wasted almost half (43 percent) of the energy inputs through air leaks, and poorly-constructed and maintained homes were even worse. Guess who lives in the most poorly constructed and maintained homes? Poor folks.

Caulk is a low-cost material used in home weatherization. (WERiSE)

According to Southern Movement Assembly’s 2020 State of the South Report, the South is financially ranked as the region with the most poverty in the country and with pockets of persistent poverty throughout, particularly in parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia (also known as the Black Belt). In addition to poverty, rural places in the US are challenged by a lack of transportation infrastructure, geographic isolation, broadband access, underfunded schools and hospitals, and fewer economic opportunities. This reality, coupled with the high monthly price of energy in Alabama — the average homeowner pays $179 —  means the basics come at a high cost for the communities we serve. 

WERiSE is significantly helping to lower their energy burden by utilizing low-cost materials such as caulk, foam, and weatherstripping. This might enable struggling residents to avoid such health-threatening tough decisions as whether to pay the power bill or put food on the table and medicine in the cabinet. It might also keep the AC running during potentially deadly heat waves.

When many hear “energy efficiency,” it may conjure up images of expensive home improvements and technologies that seem out of reach for the average homeowner. How are you able to cross that bridge to make it feel accessible to everyone?

We begin home improvements with air sealing. The three most important factors in home energy efficiency are 1) air sealing, 2) air sealing, and 3) air sealing! Air sealing an existing home is simple and easy to teach — it’s mostly crawling around the house with tubes of caulk and cans of foam — and knowing where to put them. WERiSE can teach the average homeowner or handyperson how to do it for themselves in a few hours.

We must ensure that people and the planet are not sacrificed on the altars of profit and power.

Reverend Michael Malcom

A full Home Energy Renovation (HER) involves additional techniques and materials, but air sealing is the most cost-effective and simplest action that millions of homeowners could do for themselves and their community. It’s easy to teach and requires few tools and cheap materials. It’s a great first step that can encourage homeowners to do an HER. 

If the WERiSE model of economical air sealing and related energy efficiency measures were profitable, there would be a host of profiteers making money on it and leaving those who cannot afford such services out in the cold (or heat). Our nonprofit model encourages not only the initial service to those most in need but also the formation of local, worker-owned cooperatives to sustain the work going forward. Finally, our train-the-trainer approach is designed to make low-cost home energy renovation viral and truly “weatherize every residence in the southeast.”

The WERiSE initiative began in Birmingham, Alabama, and is now spreading to other communities. How is the program influencing action?

Teaching homeowners how to weatherize their own homes is a core element of the program. (WERiSE)

The WERiSE program is founded on our Technical Director, Stephen Guesman’s training and years of experience in Residential Energy Services. After doing many Home Energy Renovations, he became convinced that the highest priority, air sealing, was so simple that you could teach it to a roomful of homeowners in an afternoon. So, he started teaching Home Energy Clinics.

The early adopter of the WERiSE Program was the Gulf Coast Creation Care group out of Mobile. We’ve presented three Home Energy Workshops through churches in the Mobile area. We’ve been able to train a lot of DIYers and improve a couple of churches.

WeRise’s train-the-trainer approach is unique. Trainees learn while renovating residences in their neighborhoods and train other trainees. Can you tell us more about this approach and why it works?

Our approach is inspired by the well-known Snowflake Model of organizing, which is based, above all, on enabling others. A movement’s power comes from its capacity and commitment to develop leadership. Everyone is responsible for identifying, recruiting, and developing leaders.

The WERiSE Strategy is to work through houses of faith to find key individuals in their communities who can be trained and continue to do HER after we and the grant money are gone. We train individuals by doing HER on homes and churches in their community, and they, in turn, train other individuals. Before you know it, 20-30 percent of the homes in the community are energy efficient.

The path towards environmentalism looks different depending on the individual or community. A really interesting part of this program is that houses of faith have become integral partners for WERiSE. Can you tell more about how faith communities are helping the fight against the climate crisis?

Faith houses are key in finding the individuals to train and supporting them in home energy renovation. We typically reach out to houses of faith first in frontline communities because we know they already act as resilience hubs in such places.

Faith houses exist in almost every community and have a special role to play in enhancing resilience. They often act as temporary shelters during climate disasters and cooling stations during heat waves for the communities they serve. Faith houses are also central gathering spaces for community meetings, support groups, and collaborative planning efforts.

WERiSE volunteers learn how to seal air ducts at a church in Birmingham. (All Saints Episcopal Church)

As grassroots organizers, we believe that the voices of faith communities must be brought to the forefront of the fight against the climate crisis. We work with houses of worship from all faith perspectives to raise awareness around clean air, clean water, and clean energy. We empower communities of faith to fight against environmental injustices with an emphasis on Black, brown, indigenous, and poor communities.

With programs like WERiSE, we are attempting to “shift the dial” from resilience to restoration, for as the wise old coach advises, “You can’t win if you play a purely defensive game.” As an interfaith organization, we work with houses of faith and other organizations to restore frontline communities. The communities themselves lead restoration plans. We are there to listen, to amplify community voices, and, if asked, to help match resources with needs.

What policies would you like to see at the state and federal level to make WERiSE and other similar initiatives available to more communities?

The government’s approach has been to provide funding for appliances and systems to be installed in homes. For instance, there had been a long-standing federal tax credit system for energy efficiency upgrades, but it didn’t give you credit for labor. It just gave you credit for the capital. So it encouraged you to buy a high-performance, expensive HVAC system, but it didn’t pay a local kid a living wage to spend a week patching all the holes in your house — but the most cost-effective dollar you can spend is patching the holes. Then consider more insulation or consider a more efficient upgrade, but first and foremost, patch the holes. 

Alabama lags the nation at rank 41 in ACEEE’s State Energy Efficiency Scorecard (q.v. State and Local Policy Database) and received an “F” from ILSR’s 2024 Community Power Scorecard. Acting as Alabama Interfaith Power & Light, a program of The People’s Justice Council, I unfurled our Interfaith Statement on Energy and Equity before the Alabama PSC in 2020. Then, there is the complicated mix of policies from rural electric cooperatives and other energy providers. I also recently provided the narration for Power to the People: The Story of Rural Electric Cooperatives.

Generally, at both the state and national levels, we must ensure that people and the planet are not sacrificed on the altars of profit and power.

WERiSE is part of a larger PJC policy reform campaign, Energizing the South for Energy Justice, launched in October 2020.