Saul_AlinskySaul Alinksy—the fabled organizer (pictured) whose approach to grassroots mobilization has informed generations of activists, including the young Barack Obama—never promoted energy efficiency, to my knowledge.

But his institutional descendants are doing so now. The Chicago-born Industrial Areas Foundation, which Alinsky founded, has a Northwest branch, and that branch—long an inspiration to me for its creative thinking and deep community engagement—has crafted an intriguing plan for boosting both good jobs and green energy at the same time. Called SustainableWorks, it’s the kind of thing that can speed both economic turnaround and recovery from oil addiction and climate change.

SustainableWorks is a plan for structuring the marketplace for clean-energy retrofits.

What? Structuring the marketplace?

More simply put, it would create a few missing institutional links and thereby allow a whole bunch of organizations with shared interests to find each other and cooperate: neighborhood groups, building owners, skilled energy auditors, reliable contractors, workforce training programs at community colleges, union apprenticeships in green construction, utilities and other public and private conservation funders.

The results would include neighborhood-wide energy upgrades that are more thorough and less expensive than what we get now, plus more—and better—new jobs with better training and better career prospects over time.

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  • The plan starts from the recognition that, for all that’s important about energy efficiency, it’s a real hassle to save energy in existing buildings, especially small buildings like houses, duplexes, low-rise apartments, and neighborhood commercial buildings.

    Typical building owners don’t know much about the energy performance of their structures, so, in general, they pass over ample opportunities for efficiency.

    These oversights are understandable. For one thing, the financial stakes of energy use are not that big, compared to other costs of ownership. For another, boosting building energy efficiency is not a self-evident process. Most owners don’t know where to add insulation; what appliances to replace early and what to replace them with; the relative cost-effectiveness of solar water heaters, ground-based heat pumps, triple-paned replacement windows, and on-demand water heaters; what a waste-heat recovery system is; which lighting systems to replace; or how to use a blower door. (Come to think of it, I don’t know those things either, and I’ve already admitted to an aberrational enthusiasm for home energy savings.)

    Even if a building owner is personally interested in such things, she is likely unsure whom to trust. Shopping for energy-using devices isn’t a weekly chore, like picking up groceries. It’s rare, the vendors tend to be specialized, and many of the devices must be installed by specialized tradespeople. Not all such tradespeople are reputable and reliable. Most small building owners are not general contractors, engineers or architects. How are they supposed to make informed decisions about such things?

    At the same time, electric and natural gas utilities and public agencies have money to spend encouraging efficiency. Construction workers are getting pink slips by the hundreds as the economy melts down. Unemployment rates are up, especially among low-skill and semi-skill workers from low-income families. And public concern around fossil-fuel dependence, oil addiction, and climate change are at historic highs.

    SustainableWorks is a program designed to re-arrange (or “organize”) all these problems into one solution. Like TravelSmart’s intensive focus on one neighborhood at a time, SustainableWorks will send outreach workers door to door engaging small building owners and signing them up for comprehensive energy audits performed by certified auditors. Next, SustainableWorks will provide referrals to top-notch contractors who the building owner can count on to do the job well, and who have verified to SustainableWorks that they’re training and hiring low-income workers into union-wage green-collar jobs. SustainableWorks will also facilitate the financing of the project; it will assemble a pool of capital that it can deploy to different projects. Low-income renters may get free retrofits paid for with public dollars, while middle-class homeowners get easier access to existing market-rate loan programs from local banks. SustainableWorks will help oversee and do quality-control on contractors’ work; it will also evaluate and certify contractors’ work, to make sure the retrofits are completed properly.

    (See what I mean now by “structuring the marketplace for clean-energy retrofits”?)

    In Spokane, where SustainableWorks had its start, it has completed six retrofits in six buildings. The program’s next step is to launch four $1-million pilot projects of its neighborhood-wide model near Portland and Tacoma, and in Seattle and Spokane. This month, its sponsors from the Industrial Areas Foundation hope to secure start-up funding from utilities and public agencies.

    I rarely get excited about organizational charts, but SustainableWorks is an exception. By completing the missing circuit in energy efficiency upgrades for small buildings, it could unleash substantial results for the climate, our communities, and working families. And four $1 million pilots isn’t much, considering the talk in Washington, DC, of an economic stimulus package that might total $300 billion.

    Maybe we should do a SustainableWorks pilot project in every Cascadian city and town? A quick check reveals 242 incorporated cities in the state of Oregon. So maybe $1 billion federal dollars would suffice to cover Cascadia?