Podcast 6: Community Action Pioneer Valley: Peter Wingate


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Podcast Transcript:

Amrita Acharya 0:00
Welcome to climate change at home, a podcast series produced by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder and Athol Daily News. I am your host, Amrita Acharya. And on this podcast we will look at the impacts of climate change and those active in the fight against it in the Pioneer Valley. Climate change at home is sponsored by Whelan insurance, providing protection to Pioneer Valley families and businesses since 1961. Today I am speaking with Peter Wingate, the energy Director of Community Action Pioneer Valley Community Action is a local organization that assists people with low incomes to achieve economic stability. The organization serves communities across Franklin, Hampshire, and North Quabbin regions through family, Youth Community Services and energy sectors. Peter and his team in the energy sector are committed to helping households cover their energy costs, as well as educating them on how they can save costs through greener forms of energy. We sat down together last month to discuss community actions, energy initiatives as they relate to climate change. And how are we doing low income communities has a great impact long term on climate action. All right, theater so nice to have you. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Peter Wingate 1:22
Sure. Thank you for having me here. My name is Peter Wingate, and the energy director at Community Action painter Valley, or energy offices are located up in Greenfield, Massachusetts, but we cover all the towns of Hampshire and Franklin counties, through energy efficiency services in my organization does a lot of other things beyond energy efficiency as well, of course.

Amrita Acharya 1:43
Yeah. So how did you first get into this work to begin with?

Peter Wingate 1:46
Oh, I love to tell the story. It was a long time ago, me making 86. And I just needed a job. So I applied for a job was supposed to be a six month position. That's all the money they had for I started in the money started rolling in. And it turns out, I liked the stuff. So I got into started out just doing quality control work and work that was done by contractors during installation, weatherization, things like that, kind of went up the career ladder, I guess, became the energy auditor, then the program coordinator that I moved to the agency in Worcester, where I was the energy director, finally circled back around the energy Director for Community Action.

Amrita Acharya 2:26
Can you speak a bit about some of the service lines you guys provide at community action within an energy efficiency?

Peter Wingate 2:33
Sure. So the energy efficiency side, kind of the core thing, we do the starting point for everything we do, the front door entry is the fuel Assistance Program, sometimes called the low income home heating energy assistance program. So that's a program that helps people with direct payments for their winter heating bills. So really valuable program, we help about 1000 households a year, anybody who thinks they might be eligible, you're probably more likely to be eligible than you think you are. Go to our website, community action.us. And there's a button you can apply right online. And once people are eligible for the fuel Assistance Program, then it opens up the door for all the energy efficiency stuff, which really leads into the climate change work we're going to be talking about. So we do weatherization, we do heating systems, we do electrical savings measures such as LED light bulbs, and we replace appliances. We are now this year all in working with utilities, changing people to go off of fossil fuels like oil, and propane and changing them over to heat pumps, which is the higher technology, which is a much more sustainable and much cheaper way to heat our homes and has a bigger impact on climate change.

Amrita Acharya 3:43
Yeah, so this sounds like you guys have quite a bit of an array of services that you offer, which would you say are the most impactful currently, and also maybe the most, I guess popular to the constituents you provide to?

Peter Wingate 3:56
Sure, I think we always have to go back to starting with fuel assistance when we talk about vulnerable populations, especially this year, when the energy prices are just insane. People need to stay safe and warm in their homes really before a lot of people can consider things like climate change, you need to be safe and secure. But we've also found that a lot of people who are lower income, are interested in being part of the climate change solution. So that, again, is the key to get into the programs that we run. And I don't want to pick and choose between the energy efficiency programs, partly because what we're really trying to do is integrate them. So it's not just get that and somebody else gets that. We want to get into make sure we get the electrical savings, get the house, the envelope, as we like to call it, make sure it's all insulated in well sealed up. And that way we can size the correct heating system, all of these things to make sure that people use as long as they can. And then the exciting thing, it cuts down their carbon footprint, and it saves the money.

Amrita Acharya 4:54
That's amazing. Yeah. So could you walk me a bit through say somebody wants to reach out to you all What are the next steps for them to get assistance that they need? Sure.

Peter Wingate 5:04
First thing, again, almost everybody comes to the fuel Assistance Program, it's not absolutely required, some people are on the discount rate with their utility. And if they're on the discount rate with the utility, they can come right to us and we can provide services. And then you didn't ask this question, but I'm gonna throw it in there anyway, how is this all paid for. And that really ties into people's utility bills, anytime any of us pay a utility bill, there's a small fraction of that bill that you're paying goes into a pot of money that everybody in the state has access to. And that's why Massachusetts leads the entire country, as far as energy efficiency per cow. Of course, the state like California, which is huge, spends more raw dollars on energy efficiency than we do. But per capita, Massachusetts has always been number one. So again, if anybody's wondering out there, if this is for me, and I keep your public hearing over and over again, when it comes to Community Action, it's free, you're still paying for it. Because every time you pay a utility bill, it's paying into this program. So I really want to get people involved.

Amrita Acharya 6:07
That's really good to know that people are technically already involved without really knowing it,

Peter Wingate 6:12
that's a good way to put you're already paying interest. So even if you have not taken advantage of these programs, or if your house is already perfectly insulated, and you don't need any of these programs, you're still helping support the network of monies in process to help other people cut down on their carbon emissions. Yeah,

Amrita Acharya 6:29
that's amazing to hear. Before I go more into the climate change kind of impact side of this work. I'm curious to know a little bit more about the exact populations you're working with, like, what sort of the spread of the demographics across the region?

Peter Wingate 6:44
Sure, yeah, we have a lot of vulnerable population, people who just don't have the economic means to do some of the things they would like to do. People who are at risk, who may not have enough food, they certainly we encounter people everyday who don't have enough money to pay their heating and electric bills. So those vulnerable populations are the ones that we're really here to serve. But also want to emphasize that our program also serves people who are not quite as vulnerable. We help people up to 60% of state median income. And I don't have all the numbers memorized, but I'm doing remember for a household of four, that's up to about $81,000. Wow, so a lot more people are eligible for these programs than think they are.

Amrita Acharya 7:24
That's great. That's great to hear. Yeah. So transitioning over to more of the impact side, let's look at the fuel assistance program. First, what are you seeing to be some of the direct impacts of having this service available to people, as opposed to say not,

Peter Wingate 7:40
sometimes it is literally the difference between somebody having a freezing cold house and having heat. That saying that to try to be overly dramatic. This is something we literally see day after day, there are people, especially this year, today, it's early in November, that oil prices close to $6. a gallon, a minimum delivery might be 600 to $900. People don't have that type of money, low income, people can't just put it on a credit card quite often they don't have a credit card, people have no other options. And when they have no other options, sometimes people do start making decisions, which they're forced into what you're not good decisions, using unsafe space heating techniques and things of that nature. So having the fuel assistance available is just critically important.

Amrita Acharyar 8:25
You mentioned earlier that there's a direct connection between what is being offered and trying to mitigate climate change as much as much as possible. Could you go into a bit more detail about what you mean?

Peter Wingate 8:36
I can't, I think it gets really exciting, because then we do start talking about some other collaborations. Because that community action, what we do, we find the clients or the clients find us, we go up to a home and do the assessment to figure out what needs to be done. And then as I used to tell my kids, when I got home around the kitchen table, when I say Daddy, what you do today, I don't do anything, we just set it up and other people do the work. So our collaborators we've got some really wonderful weatherization and heating contractors that our area that do the actual work on the throw some names out there. And forgive me any of you I missed, I apologize. But some of the ones we work with a lot. cozy home performance beyond green, ideal home improvement. There are others there. These are the people that are actually out in the homes, doing the work doing the installation work. It's tough work, we couldn't do it without them. cozy home performance actually did a lot of work on campus here today. So these are the people we collaborate with.

Amrita Acharya 9:33
That's amazing. And so what have been, so actually let me start with this. First, could you talk a bit about what weatherization is? Just so we have a sense assure you the work is

Peter Wingate 9:46
not a word I've really ever cared for much because all too often people have to ask that question. What is it? It's really providing energy efficiency services, which focus in on making sure that your home is insulated properly, air sealed correctly, and still still a safe and healthy home, we do a lot of tests to make sure homes aren't over tight. And we can put in fans if we need to if the homes are over tightened a lot of measurements, so it's not the old way where people just used to go up and throw some insulation in their attic and hope everything was better than it was. Because we found that that way, all well, although well intended doesn't get you where you need to be. So our technicians are quite well trained and certified, and they do a lot of tests on home. The contractors go in as they're doing work, they continue to do tests to make sure that we're achieving what we hope to achieve.

Amrita Acharya 10:37
Cool. That's great. And you mentioned before that your organization is trying to transition into greener forms of energy or and being able to advocate for that with the people that you work with. Can you talk a bit about what you've seen to be some changes since starting that transition?

Peter Wingate 10:57
Sure. And some of it is just the language that we've been using. Looking back, we've been doing climate change since I started, right down the street on State Street here in Northampton in 1887. Those were the words we use. We talked energy efficiency, we talked about making things better for low income, the low income advocates, but all of those things were climate change the climate change advocates, it was a long time ago, it just wasn't the way we talked about things. So it's not the comfortable language for me, which I need it to be because it really is, I hope we can get to some numbers among better because I did put together some numbers over the impact of what work we do over just a typical year. It's, it's pretty fun. It's fun to look back on. And it's, I think impactful and shows that for everybody who is involved with having the house insulated, or painted and fun to help homes be insulated, that it's making some difference. You know, there used to be an old saying that was kicked around a lot, all politics is local, maybe all climate change is local. There's so many things we can't do. But there are some things we can do. And that can start with where we live making sure the homes we live in are as energy efficiency. Okay, I went through and found the cleanest numbers I could come up with were from 2019. Okay, it was pre a pre pandemic. So things were clicking along pretty well. And at that point, we were tracking energy savings more than we are now now work more tracking home served dollar spin. So I looked at all the numbers and half of the numbers, they can convert into kilowatt savings and the other into therm saved. And then I took all those numbers and put them through a calculator from an EPA website. So this is not just Peter making up numbers. But as I told you through an email earlier, I don't want to swear by these numbers. But it gives you a snapshot of the impact of insulating these houses and putting in new heating systems and putting in more LED light bulbs and we could possibly count. So what I came up with is, with all the combined services per year, it comes to about 2647 metric tons of carbon dioxide that's prevented from going into the atmosphere every year for the lifetime of that measure.

Amrita Acharya 13:07
Could you interpret that number

Peter Wingate 13:09
doesn't mean anything. So there were a lot of ways I could look at it, the one that was close to my heart, that's the equivalent of planting a forest of trees in 3202 acres. Wow. And then to break that down once more, that would be about the equivalent of planting 44,000 trees. Wow. And so that's basically what we do equivalent.

Amrita Acharya 13:32
And that's in one year. That's in one year. That's amazing. And that, so that's 2019. So do you see that to be increasing over time?

Peter Wingate 13:41
It is, our funding has been increased pretty dramatically, both through the utilities, and through the bipartisan investment legislation. Okay, that's part of the infrastructure infrastructure package that funds the national Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program. Just to give you an idea how much more money is coming to us through that program, that had traditionally been a program nationwide that was funded at about 225 to $250 million. This funding coming at us now is $5 billion with a bee so you can see the impact is going to be really enormous. So the possibilities are going to be wonderful. So one of the reasons we're now trying to use language about talking about climate change is because we knew, we know we need to have people interested in this. I need to attract more people. I got lucky in 1987 to find a job that I really liked by accident. We want to make it clear for people who are interested in this type of stuff that there is a pathway that you can be very involved in again locally, whether you want to be the person up there putting the insulation in the attic, if you want to be the person doing the energy audit, whatever there's a niche for when it comes to climate change.

Amrita Acharya 14:51
Why is it important for community action or any organization to be focusing on vulnerable communities when They are thinking about their climate change action related work.

Peter Wingate 15:04
I think there's a couple things going on there. First of all, low income people deserve to be part of climate change. They want to be part of climate change. They they understand that things need to get better, we need to do things better. And also, I think there's a really strong argument that climate change not going the way we want it to go impacts them more severely than non low income people. Let's just go back to the heat waves. A low income person may have less access to ways to cool their homes and be comfortable. for hot weather for cold weather. Certainly, they it cost them more money to keep the homes warm. So I think impact on low income people is even higher than for nominal income people.

Amrita Acharya 15:48
If you're interested in learning more, you can visit community action.us, where you'll find more information about the organization's energy and climate change related projects on this season of climate change at home. I'm speaking to individuals from Youth Climate action now and the beaver Institute among many others. Lastly, I'd like to thank our sponsor Whelan Insurance, a local business operated exclusively by solar power. Whelan Insurance has seven EV charging stations at its King Street office in Northampton, free for public use. Until next time, I'm Amrita Acharya and I thank you so much for tuning in.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai