Helping solar's warmth shine on low-income families

Sometimes those people hit with the highest fuel bills are the least able to afford the time and money needed to lower their bills over the long run. Convinced that low-income home owners have largely been bypassed in the rush to learn "how to" energy-saving projects, Leanne Sowande-Brent, a black mother of four from Evanston, has developed a unique energy help program for local residents which combines education and action.

The emphasis, a step beyond weatherization, is on installation of passive solar systems wherever an energy audit deems it feasible. The hope is that precious energy resources be saved while fuel bills in the affected homes will be whittled by 30 to 50 percent.

The program, called Urban Ark, like its Biblical counterpart has a distinct rescue mission. It is in the first year of an assured three years of Community Development Block Grant funding through the City of Evanston. So far its small team of part-time architects, mechanical engineers, and minority contractors have fitted only two homes with solar devices. But another seven homes should be equipped by early next year and a total of perhaps 30 completed by 1982. The primary thrust is on heating space rather than water, and the cost per job averages about $3,000.

"not that much work has been done to develop low-cost solar systems for individual homes, and if someone has to investigate it all on his own, the chances are he's not going to act," says Mrs. Sowande-Brent, who took a sharp cut in pay from her job in private industry two years ago to work full- time for another environmental group in Evanston.

"The things we were doing there were very worthwhile, but it soon became apparent to me that we weren't reaching low-income and minority families," she says. "Many are juggling two or three jobs and can't afford the luxury of attending a Saturday energy workshop. . . . It's not enough to offer good information. We're practitioners -- not just theoreticians."

Convincing low-income homeowners of the advantages of going solar, says Mrs. Sowande-Brent, was no problem at all.

"Everyone has heard of skylights, though they may only think they're for New Mexico or Arizona and not for older buildings [an Evanston specialty] in an urban setting," she says. "We stress simplicity. We say, "This is the same knowledge our grandparents had.'"

In one of the two completed projects, a hard-to-heat attic apartment with no windows was equipped with skylights to let in sunshine.

"It's so comfortable now without the heat on," says the owner, who is sure she will save on heating bills this winter.

In addition to supplying technical advice, the Urban Ark has also launched a cooperative buying club to offer such energy savers as window quilts, firewood, and wood stoves at far less than the going retail price. Mrs. Sowande-Brent hopes eventually to develop an energy credit union that could make energy conservation loans to those needing them.

Still another project on the Ark's drawing boards is a plan to buy up an abandoned Evanston elementary school, install solar heating, and convert it into 25-30 low-income apartments. A community greenhouse for a year-round vegetable and herb garden and a cannery to preserve the results are also part of the demonstration plan.

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