Feature: AmeriCorps Recovery Project Energize in WNC

Feature: AmeriCorps Recovery Project Energize in WNC

By Elizabeth Koenig on 03/22/2010

What is AmeriCorps?

A federal program, AmeriCorps is intended to improve the country though dedicated volunteer service. It formally began in 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act.

Much like Peace Corps members, AmeriCorps volunteers commit to a term of service (usually one or two years) and work with nonprofit organizations focused on addressing critical needs in communities across the United States. Volunteers receive a stipend and are required to complete a designated number of service hours during their AmeriCorps term. If all obligations are met in that time, the volunteer receives an education award to be used for school loans or future academic tuition.

Since its inception in 1993, AmeriCorps has grown from a corps of 20,000 members to — following legislation passed in 2009 to expand the program — 250,000 positions each year. There are currently about 400 AmeriCorps members working across the state of North Carolina.

Twelve of them work in Western North Carolina, where they work with the WNC Green Building Council, North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light, Green Opportunities, Community Action Opportunities, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, Mountain Projects Inc., and Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation and Development.

AmeriCorps Recovery Project Energize has the goal of weatherizing 300 critical-need homes in WNC over an 11-month service period. To reach this goal, program members work to educate community residents about weatherization and weatherization-assistance programs, while also actually weatherizing homes. Homeowners get the work done for free, but they must qualify based on income.

What is weatherization?

Weatherization, sometimes known as “winterizing,” involves taking measures to make a house more efficient in its energy use. The energy it takes to heat or cool a house is significant and can be reduced through air sealing (sealing up air leaks in a house), adding insulation, duct sealing, light-bulb replacement (with CFLs), and sometimes even heating system and refrigerator replacement. An energy audit is performed with a visual inspection and blower-door test to determine which measures will be most beneficial to the household to maintain or improve the indoor air quality.

These measures can save up to 32 percent on a home’s energy bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. This savings is direct to the homeowner and can kick in as soon as the work is completed. Many pre-1980 homes were built before energy efficiency was a consideration. These homes especially need to be retrofitted to today’s efficiency standards.

Free weatherization services have been available since 1976 for qualifying homeowners looking to cut heating costs, with the federal government providing $225 million in 2008. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $5 billion has been allocated toward the project over three years.

The increase in federal funding is due, in part, to the cost-effectiveness of the program. With more money, more weatherization jobs will be created. Homeowners who receive the service will save energy, lower their bills and benefit the environment at the same time.

What’s it mean for Asheville?

In conjunction with the AmeriCorps Recovery Project Energize program, the WNCGBC and Green Opportunities received a Community Development Block Grant from the city of Asheville’s Community Development Division. The grant is dedicated to weatherizing 60 homes in the “Weed and Seed” area around Burton Street in West Asheville. Part of the project mission is “to improve quality of life by ‘weeding’ out crime and ‘seeding’ positive community change through resident leadership and creation of sustainable partnerships.”

Revitalization happens through four basic components: law enforcement; community policing; prevention, intervention and treatment; and neighborhood restoration. In West Asheville, identifying community leaders and creating programs to identify youth leaders is the name of the game. Green Opportunities is focusing on the neighborhood restoration through education and outreach in the community.

The grant money funds two part-time Green Opportunities members and a full-time coordinator shared by Green Opportunities and Community Action Opportunities.

The WNCGBC and GO work with Community Action Opportunities, the organization that has been in charge of weatherization services in Buncombe County since 1970. Green Opportunities members learn about weatherization and building science through hands-on work.

This project seeks to not only conserve energy and save money in a specific neighborhood, but it also is getting the community involved and educated about energy conservation. AmeriCorps Recovery Project Energize members collaborated with Asheville GO and organized a volunteer event on Oct. 24, 2009, to weatherize five homes in this neighborhood. Both organizations are actively educating homeowners and recruiting qualifying homes for the program with the hope to improve homes and ease the financial burden of excess electric bills.

Through these initiatives, weatherization will help to fill an important community need and make an important and lasting difference in the lives of many people in WNC.

[Elizabeth Koenig is an Americorps Recovery Project Energize member with the WNCGBC through May of 2010. She can be reached at elizabeth@wncgbc.or (828) 254-1995.]