Building Community and Improving Energy Efficiency
Updated: Jul 12
Sofia Reali, Energy Efficiency Fellow, explains the importance of home weatherization and how the volunteer-driven nonprofit organization, WindowDressers, builds community resilience while improving energy efficiency throughout the region.
Maine is currently the most oil dependent state for home heating in the nation and the City of Portland states that 60% of their emissions come from the use of fossil fuels to heat and cool buildings. Much of these emissions can be attributed to heating loss and increased fuel use due to inefficient home weatherization. Maine has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation and these older homes often lack proper insulation and are significantly less energy efficient. According to the Governor’s Energy Office, there are roughly 570,00 homes in Maine, two thirds of which are rented buildings that were built in 1960 or earlier that lack proper weatherization. Data from the American Community Survey found that in Portland alone, 83.6% of the housing stock was built in 1989 or earlier.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) ranked Maine 5th in the nation for energy efficiency policies and programs. While Maine has taken real strides to advance energy equity, many of the state’s programs are aimed primarily for homeowners. However, there is an overwhelming energy burden gap between homeowners and renters. Multifamily rentals generally have significantly fewer energy efficient features and when tenants are paying for their own energy usage there is less incentive for a property owner to invest in weatherization upgrades. Renters are also more often low-income residents than that of homeowners and are being disproportionately impacted by these energy efficiency challenges. Maine’s low-income residents throughout the state are faced with the highest energy burdens and spend more of their income on electricity and heating costs than that of other residents. According to a study done by Synapse for the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, the average home energy burden for low-income households in Maine is 19%. This is the percentage of a household’s income that is devoted to energy costs alone. This is significantly higher than the 8.6% national average energy burden for low-income households.
This energy burden gap needs to be addressed and it can also be an opportunity for growth and change in how we approach future energy efficiency programs and policies. Creating incentives for property owners to invest in weatherization retrofits is something that needs to be explored. Lowering energy usage could also help to bring down the price of housing rentals in a time when affordable housing options are few and far between. The median rent price for a two-bedroom in Portland was $1,880 in 2020 and unaffordable for 71% of households. However, there are other ways to address this issue and one of them is the work that WindowDressers does throughout the region.
As part of my service, I’ve been working with WindowDressers, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that trains and supports community volunteers to host a local Community Build where they create insulating window inserts for their community. WindowDressers’ inserts are custom made to function as an interior storm window and one medium sized insert (approximately 30” x 50”) saves 8.5 gallons of heating fuel every year. To put that into perspective if you had 10 window inserts for your home you would be saving 85 gallons of heating fuel every year. Since 2010, WindowDressers’ inserts have helped save over 2.6 million gallons of heating fuel with over 58,009 inserts built. These inserts are low-cost removable weatherization retrofits that can help lower heating costs, reduce emissions, and are a viable opportunity for renters and homeowners alike. Additionally, one third of the families that participate in a Community Build are low-income, for whom Window Dressers provides 10 inserts per year at no cost.
Maine Highlands 2022 Community Build.
WindowDressers’ cooperative community-based model for building these inserts is what makes them so unique. A Community Build is a space to build energy efficient window inserts but it is so much more than that. They bring volunteers of all economic and social situations together to build connections, promote a sense of community, and make a meaningful and tangible impact on the community.
The more time I spend speaking with volunteers that have participated in a Community Build the more I understand the impact that they have. Past volunteers are the biggest advocates for WindowDressers and it’s easy to see why. A Community Build is organized, planned, and run by volunteers that want to make an impactful difference in their community. Volunteers really do run the show and are the heart of WindowDressers which is what makes a Community Build so special.
Part of my service with WindowDressers has been conducting outreach to recruit volunteer leaders in the hopes of bringing back a Community Build to the greater Portland region. It has been a few years since Portland has been able to host a Community Build which is a huge lost opportunity for the region to lower emissions and build greater community resilience. There are hundreds of homes in the greater Portland region that could benefit from a Community Build and it’s my hope to make that happen again.
Sofia grew up in Cumberland, ME. She studied at the University of Vermont where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science. She now calls Portland, ME home again and is eager to serve communities in Maine to help grow and adapt to the constantly changing challenges they face. After graduating Sofia was an Ecosystems Governance Intern at SustainaMetrix in Portland, ME where she explored how market forces, government and civil society interact and work together to build and support systems of change. Sofia feels most at peace in the outdoors whether it be running, hiking, or walking along the coastal waters of Maine. In her free time, she likes to volunteer for the Friends of Casco Bay and consults for the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine(E2Tech). She understands the importance of community engagement and outreach when it comes to building long-term resiliency within communities. Sofia is interested in regional and community planning which is why she is excited to join the Resilience Corps Fellowship with GPCOG.