Tag Archives: community development

Energy Masters Program energizes Arlington County

An Energy Masters Program volunteer caulks a window to prevent drafts and keep moisture from rotting the wood around the window.

An Energy Masters Program volunteer caulks a window to prevent drafts and keep moisture from rotting the wood around the window.

Volunteers in Arlington County and Alexandria are making a difference — one light bulb and toilet tank at a time. With more than 6,000 hours of volunteer service, these masters of energy efficiency are helping low-income families make their homes more comfortable while reducing their water and energy bills.

The Energy Masters Program, funded by the Arlington County Community Development Fund, has made strides in improving energy efficiency for residents living in affordable housing units in Arlington County neighborhoods. The program is a collaboration between the Virginia Cooperative Extension Arlington County Office and two county nonprofit organizations — Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment and Arlington Thrive.

“Training teams of volunteers to go into low-income apartments and do energy- and water-saving improvements helps lower the utility bills of both the residents and the property owners, ultimately improving the environment by eliminating the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere,” said Jennifer Abel, family and consumer sciences Extension agent in Arlington County. “Since starting the program in 2011, we’ve trained 152 volunteers, and we’ve made improvements in 591 apartments.”

The impetus for the program was a phone call to Abel from a board member of Arlington Thrive — a nonprofit organization that provides emergency assistance to low-income residents who are struggling to pay their rent or utility bills — regarding the costly utility bills of those living in affordable housing units. Arlington Thrive collaborated with Virginia Cooperative Extension and Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment on applying for a grant to fund the energy efficiency improvement program.

Some of the improvements include:

  • Sealing gaps and holes around windows and door frames.
  • Inserting foam gaskets behind light switch plates and outlet covers to prevent air leakage.
  • Replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent and LED bulbs.
  • Installing low-flow faucet aerators and shower heads.
  • Mounting a Toilet Tummy in toilet tanks, which reduces the amount of water used.
  • Cleaning the coils under refrigerators to help improve cooling efficiency.

“The sense that I get from the volunteers is that they see the real, tangible results of the work they’re doing,” Abel said. “After they see this huge gap in a wall and seal it up, they can immediately feel that they’ve stopped the air leakage that was occurring and therefore have improved the overall comfort of the residents in their homes. That’s definitely the most exciting thing, and that’s what keeps the volunteers coming back.”

Energy Masters Program volunteer Guillermo Ortiz got involved with the program and immediately recognized its value to the community.

“In addition to the educational aspects, improving energy efficiency in low-income communities was something that really piqued my interest and prompted my involvement,” Ortiz said. “The Energy Masters Program offered me the opportunity to pair my interests in climate change, energy efficiency, and civic engagement, while allowing me to make a difference in historically underserved communities.”

In addition to the retrofits in the apartments, the program now includes one-on-one home visits with residents and more education on steps they can take to improve their energy efficiency. Many of the volunteers also provide education in local elementary, middle, and high schools to teach students about energy efficiency and the importance of energy conservation.

The program expanded to Alexandria in 2016 with support from a grant from the city. Volunteer teams conducted retrofits in 38 Alexandria apartments and are looking forward to doing many more. “Hopefully this program can expand to other parts of the state and ideally to other parts of the country as well,” Abel said.

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Communities working together

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Communities in the Northern Neck knew they had a problem. Young people were leaving because of a lack of jobs, the current workforce needed additional education, and there were few opportunities for those who wanted to stay in the area.

Four years ago these communities took steps to improve the situation by participating in the Stronger Economies Together program, which has allowed them to build a blueprint for regional economic success.

Today, the Northern Neck is putting its plan into action by engaging partners and leveraging the strengths of this diverse region. Communities have come together to form the Northern Neck Artisan Trail, which highlights the creative talents, foods, and agricultural products of the region, and to participate in the emerging Virginia Oyster Trail. The new trail offers visitors a way to enjoy Virginia’s seven different oyster regions, as well as to experience the unique culture of watermen in the Chesapeake Bay.

The region has received grant support from the USDA and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to create the Northern Neck Loan Fund to help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses gain access to capital. The USDA recognized the Northern Neck Economic Development Plan for its commitment to strengthening the area’s economies and identified it as a model plan for the program.

The SET program promotes collaboration among communities by pooling economic assets among municipalities and expanding the vision of local policymakers in rural areas to think regionally, beyond their own communities. Virginia Cooperative Extension partners with Virginia’s USDA Rural Development office, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and Virginia Tech’s Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics to deliver technical expertise that leads regions through the planning process.

“The guidance and support that we received from Extension has been invaluable to the region,” said Lisa Hull, tourism and economic development coordinator for the Northern Neck Planning District Commission. “Extension has helped keep the group together through this process.”

The Northern Neck and a section of Southside Virginia were the first two regions to complete the program. In 2015, three more regions — the Eastern Shore, the Mount Rogers Planning District, and northern Shenandoah Valley — were selected to participate and are currently forming their plans.    

“The SET program provides communities an opportunity to map regions, think about who the stakeholders are, and invite new people to the conversation,” said Martha Walker, community viability Extension specialist and SET project coordinator. “Communities are able to come together and make real progress toward enhancing and building on the assets of their communities to spur economic growth.”

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