Jane W., a supervisor at a large retail store and the mother of two teenage boys, used to get a utility bill of almost $400 every month for her 800-square-foot home.
“The house was built with no insulation and had a furnace from the 1930s that was built to last but operating at about 20 percent efficiency,” said Howard Brooks, CEO of the Energy Resource Center. “She couldn’t afford the gas she was paying for, and 80 percent of that gas wasn’t doing anything.”
The center helps people like Jane (not her real name) to make their homes energy efficient.
Jane applied for assistance, and her income qualified her for free upgrades. Technicians from the center air-sealed her home; insulated the walls, crawlspace and attic; replaced her furnace with a 90-percent-efficient model; and installed an Energy Star refrigerator.
At no cost to her, Jane received $7,000 worth of energy efficiency services.
“We were able to drop her bills to under $100,” Brooks said. “That put $300 a month in that family’s pockets.”
Brooks describes the center as a “nonprofit construction company.”
Its employees perform comprehensive energy assessments; check homes for safety and health hazards; install energy-efficient showerheads, faucet aerators, LED light bulbs, and carbon monoxide and smoke detectors; and perform upgrades and improvements including insulation, repair or replacement of furnaces, water heaters and refrigerators.
These services are available for free for those who qualify for programs like LEAP or SNAP; in general, that means a gross income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty limit, or $51,500 for a household of four people.
For those who make a little more, “sometimes we can find less restrictive programs to serve them,” Brooks said.
Funding comes from federal and state programs, donations and the center’s pay-it-forward program.
People whose income exceeds program qualifications can hire the center’s technicians to perform energy audits and upgrades at market rates.
“We have some of the best-trained folks [in the industry]; we provide quality service,” Brooks said. “The profit we pay forward to a neighbor.”
The center was founded in 1979 as a nonprofit by community advocate Cathy Robbins, who served as its first director.
When Brooks joined in February 2009, the center was receiving 97 percent of its revenue from one federal grant.
Brooks oversaw the organization’s conversion to a social enterprise seven years ago and has diversified its funding, including a contract with Colorado Springs Utilities.
“We’ve doubled the number of homes we’re serving this year thanks to CSU upping their funding,” he said. The center also works with Xcel Energy, Outreach Colorado, Pikes Peak United Way and the Colorado Energy Office.
With 2018 revenue of $8.2 million, the center spent 3 percent on administration and fundraising, while 97 percent went to energy efficiency materials and services.
The center now has offices in Loveland, Denver and Alamosa as well as Colorado Springs and serves people in 27 counties, saving clients an average of 25 percent on utility bills. About 12 percent of clients are paying customers.
Brooks said the center hires certified technicians who are thoroughly screened because they often enter homes with vulnerable people.
Like the construction industry in general, the center sometimes struggles to find qualified employees.
“The majority of people come to us able and willing to work but not knowledgeable,” Brooks said. “We train them from the ground up. We’re on the forefront of training people in insulation and HVAC work. We also do a lot of training with staff around how to serve people well and how to get the job done if there’s obstacles or challenges like hoarding.”
Particularly in low-income homes, the technicians often find multiple unsafe conditions such as mold, gas leaks, carbon monoxide and electric wiring hazards.
“In the course of our work, we mitigate those conditions,” Brooks said. “We make sure people have working CO detectors in their homes.”
Brooks said that even though the center serves about 2,000 people a year, “there are a quarter of a million families that need help.”
Many are young families and retirees who live in older homes and suffer from “energy poverty,” Brooks said. “We find people who live in $900[-a-month] homes and have a $300 utility bill,” he said. That’s money that can’t go toward other vital living expenses, such as food and medicine.
“That is a significant problem, and we’re not putting as huge a dent in it as we’d like to. There is a significant gap in what we’re able to do. Money is the only thing standing in the way of serving more people.”