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Heinz Foundation Q&A with Ann Gerace, Executive Director of CCI and KEEA Member
By Carmen J. Lee
Endowments Communications Officer
Before energy conservation was fashionable or a financial necessity, Conservation Consultants Inc. was promoting energy efficiency and environmental responsibility in western Pennsylvania. Today, the 32-year-old nonprofit continues to “walk the talk” through its weatherization efforts and the organization’s use of its own building as an educational model of environmentally sound renovation and construction. Executive Director Ann Gerace explains how the nonprofit is expanding its work, which has become more vital to local residents during these tough economic times.
Q: What has been your organization’s biggest triumph of the past year?
A: The mission of Conservation Consultants, Inc. is the promotion of responsible energy use in homes and buildings. Due to the infusion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, the number of homes weatherized across Pennsylvania increased greatly in 2010. CCI was called upon to assist weatherization agencies with their workload. Our Building Performance Institute-certified auditors performed home energy audits and quality inspections of locally weatherized properties. Much has been made of the alleged waste affiliated with stimulus fund-supported programs around the country. However, a big triumph for us was that the post-weatherization inspections performed by our energy auditors confirmed that the home weatherizations completed in our area were done with a high degree of quality and with an eye toward the health and safety of the homeowner. Local taxpayers and ARRA weatherization recipients can take comfort in knowing that their tax dollars were wisely spent.
Q: What has been the biggest trial?
A: Since 1993, the CCI Center has served as a living demonstration lab, showcasing how environmentally safe, energy-responsible building products and techniques are used in buildings. While we would love to say that every one of our demonstrations is successful, that’s not the case. In fact, our biggest trial over the past year is related to the failure of one of our demonstrations. Last fall, we had to replace our entire patio roof because the agriculturally based, structural insulating panels supporting the patio had over time become unsafe. The hard lesson learned was that such agriculturally based products tend to soak up water like a sponge, hiding the presence of leaks and eventually decaying due to natural processes. Replacement of the roof proved to be very time-consuming, taking months of planning and physical preparation to clear the roof and evacuate the working space beneath the roof. The project also was quite costly to the organization both monetarily – the expense exceeded $100,000 – and in terms of lost staff productivity.
Q: What issue or event has had the most impact — positive or negative – on your organization in the past year and how have you responded?
A: The event that has had the most impact on our organization was mentioned earlier: stimulus funding. Our energy auditors jumped at the chance to use their technical skills to improve and enhance quality weatherization in Pennsylvania. With the additional revenue derived from ARRA projects, we were able to invest in our associates’ education and sponsorship for Building Performance Institute certification. In order to maintain our local energy audit programs for low-income residents, CCI was able to subcontract work to two high-skilled BPI certified engineers.
Q: What new initiatives have been started?
A: Most recently, our organization established an alliance with the Fayette Energy Partnership and Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania with the goals of significantly and permanently reducing energy consumption across multiple sectors in Fayette County; providing opportunities for un- and under-employed Fayette County residents to enter energy-efficiency careers that pay family-sustaining, economy-stimulating wages; and demonstrating a replicable and scalable strategy for energy efficiency and conservation with a strong network of partners. Columbia Gas is implementing a new energy conservation program to aid residents between 151 percent and 250 percent of poverty level. The program will pay for a BPI audit of customers’ homes and offer “prebate” discounts to encourage homeowners to reduce their energy use. As a further incentive, the Fayette Energy Partnership will add to Columbia’s “prebate” amounts to further defray the costs of weatherization. CCI will conduct the audits, present community energy education workshops and perform post-weatherization quality inspections.
Q: As head of this organization, what goals do you have for the next year?
A: Our headquarters, the CCI Center, was renovated into a “green” environmentally responsible building in 1998. The renovation took place prior to the creation of LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – certification. After LEED’s creation, we went back in our records to identify all energy-efficient and environmental aspects of the building. CCI was awarded Gold EB (existing building) LEED certification in 2005. Since that time, we have doubled the capacity of our solar array, added a green roof, significantly improved the air quality in our basement, installed a new entry system to reduce tracked-in dirt and installed on our second level a floor made of marmoleum – environmentally friendly panels consisting of pine resin, linseed oil and wood sawdust that can be “clicked” together and set in place. With all those additions, CCI will strive this year to raise our LEED rating to Platinum.
Q: If CCI was a person, what type of personality would you say it had?
A: Unselfish, devoted and enthusiastic. Our auditors and administrators dedicate their knowledge and skill to improve the health, safety, comfort and welfare of our community members most in need. We walk our talk, not only in our building, but also in public.
Q: What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about your organization?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions about our organization is that we are a nature – plants and animals – conservation organization. Folks also think that we do everything for free since we are a nonprofit.
Q: Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact your organization is having on your local community or the region?
A: Let me tell you about our Green Neighborhood Project, which The Heinz Endowments funded for 15 years. We went into low-income neighborhoods and offered the program, which meant that we would help homeowners, renters, schools, nonprofits and others reduce their energy use. It was a communitywide effort, and we would stay in a neighborhood for about 18 months. So, for example, the first neighborhood we did was Carrick. Columbia Gas weatherized 200 homes as part of our program. We also helped a dairy business convert to other ways of energizing its trucks that saved the company about $40,000 a year on its energy bills. For one of the churches, we were able to help them so reduce their costs that they were able to open the church building during the week for senior center programs, which they hadn’t been able to do before because the gas bill was so high. We worked in 17 inner-city neighborhoods – weatherizing buildings, helping them be more energy efficient. We also did lessons in the schools so that children could help parents reduce their bills and tell them where to find assistance.
Q: Could you share a short story about an individual’s experience that captures what your organization is meant to be to the community?
A: We have contracts with most of the regulated utilities in western Pennsylvania to deliver or manage usage-reduction programs for low-income residents. This unique relationship allows us to help customers comprehensively by directing them to the full range of services offered by their utility providers. We also work with a number of community-based organizations that provide other benefits beyond utility services.
Last February, a woman who had recently lost her husband and had three children reached out to the H2O – Help to Others – program that we conduct for Pennsylvania American Water. In the course of working with this customer, Patricia Lovelace, the water conservation program manager, learned that in addition to losing her husband, she also had numerous problems within the household ranging from accrued medical bills stemming from her husband’s extended illness, extensive utility arrearages, and then in July, her hot water tank exploded, necessitating a replacement. She also had other water-related problems in the home and was facing other utility shut offs.
Pat made arrangements with a local plumber to resolve the woman’s plumbing needs at a much-discounted rate. Pat worked with the customer’s gas utility to coordinate funds and services for a new hot water tank. Pat also determined that the woman was eligible for customer assistance discount programs offered by her water, gas and electric providers. And finally, because the entire family was having a difficult time with dealing with the illness and death of the husband and father, Pat connected them to a grief counseling service for both the women and her children. Through Pat’s extraordinary efforts, the customer was able to stay in her home, avoid termination of her utilities and most importantly, care for her children and begin the healing process after the loss of her husband. That’s the type of work we do across the region.
For more on Ann and CCI, visit http://www.heinz.org/grants_spotlight_entry.aspx?entry=530