Green student army helps east Greensboro residents reduce energy bills

by Jordan Green

Nine NC A&T University students crowded into Karen Fox’s trailer on 10 th Street in Greensboro’s East White Oak neighborhood. They pulled packages of compact fluorescent light bulbs out of an oversized blue bag made out of light tarpaulin-like material. One stood on a chair to unscrew a bank of incandescent bulbs from overhead fixtures lining the divider between the kitchen and living room. Another, armed with a clipboard, quizzed Fox on her energy bill.

“This trailer is not energy efficient at all,” Fox said. “It’s like I’m heating half of Greensboro. That’s why it’s so hot outside.”

Fox said she keeps her lights on at night for the benefit of her children, and she pays for it. Her last energy bill came in at about $200. After falling behind, she set up a payment plan with Duke Energy. The students promised to send someone back in three months to record her energy bill, with the expectation that the more efficient fluorescents will shave off some of her cost.

Fox ushered the student team into her trailer with palpable excitement. Hers was the fifth door they had knocked on, and the first one that opened for them. At three others, the residents have apparently not been home. At another, the Venetian blinds in a window facing the driveway had flicked open, but the team’s pitchman rang the doorbell to no avail.

“So, you must be the electrician,” Fox said to Gary Brown, a graduating senior, whose hardhat and reflective vest identified him as the team leader.

“I’m a journalism and mass communication major,” Brown replied.

At about 1 p.m. on Monday, some 250 students fanned out on residential streets primarily in East White Oak. Former Mayor Yvonne Johnson arrived just as the teams were deploying. US Sen. Kay Hagan would show up later with a small entourage and join one of the teams for a round of house calls. In his first maneuver, Brown led his team to White Street and then turned back to confer with street manager Tiffany McLaurin, a UNCG student. McLaurin redirected Brown to 10th Street, but another team was already there knocking on doors. Nine to a unit, the teams roamed the streets like a peaceful military operation with McLaurin and another street manager moving closely behind, along with embedded reporters, a TV cameraman and volunteer service agency photographer.

Coordinators from Let’s Raise A Million, an organization founded by students from Morehouse College and Spellman College, had arrived in a U-Haul truck loaded with supplies at 4:30 a.m. One of them, Imran Batla, said he had been up since 8. They had come for their first service project outside of Atlanta at the invitation of Zim Ugochukwu, a UNCG student who founded the local student organization Ignite Greensboro last year.

The service project, one of several taking place across the Triad on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, took shape after a “soapbox salon” co-hosted by the young professionals group Face to Face and the activist-oriented Beloved Community Center at the East White Oak Community Center in November.

Jacob Goad, a Face to Face member who works at the Greensboro Housing Coalition, said he was curious about how the federal stimulus funds were being spent. One of his colleagues, Willena Cannon, told him that the Beloved Community Center had received a federal grant to train minority workers to weatherize houses. At the November meeting, Ugochukwu proposed bringing the Let’s Raise A Million project to Greensboro, and the planners quickly reached a consensus that East White Oak Community Center would be a natural staging area.

“We’retaking out inefficient incandescent light bulbs and exchanging them forfluorescents, which consume less energy,” Goad said. “It’s a win-win.There’s the environmental benefit: You’re not using as much carbonenergy. And there’s the economic benefit: You’re not spending as muchon energy costs. You can spend it on other things like food. There’sthe economic context. There’s foreclosures going on all around us. Youcan save money on energy and put that money into paying your mortgageinstead.”

TonyAnderson, a cofounder of Let’s Raise A Million, acknowledged that themethodology for auditing household energy costs is unscientific. Forinstance, the differential before and after the light bulb exchangedoes not account for declining heating costs as the temperature risesbetween January and April. But he argued that two hours of volunteerwork exchanging light bulbs represents a “value holder” to get peoplethinking about other measures such as lowflow water kits that requireminimal skill and effort to implement and can redound with significantsavings. And he said the home visits are creating a database ofaddresses that can be taken to policymakers such as Sen. Hagan to arguefor additional federal funding to expand residential conservationefforts.

Andersonsaid each fluorescent bulb saves households $40 per year. One householdexchanged 25 bulbs on Monday. Fox’s was more typical, with 19. Aftertwo hours of canvassing, the 1,298 fluorescent bulbs supplied by HomeDepot for the project had been installed, and Batla counted 38completed household audit forms.

Beforethe army of volunteers arrived, Let’s Raise A Million coordinatorMarcus Penny had coached the hardhat-wearing team leaders: “We’re goingto ‘harvest’ the old incandescent light bulbs, and ‘plant’ the newfluorescents. We’re planting an idea, to show how easy it is.”

TheEast White Oak neighborhood was chosen for the project because of itsstatus as what the organizers term “a community of modest means.”Taking into consideration the class differences between the studentvolunteers and the residents, Penny offered a little sensitivitytraining: “A comment like ‘That’s a really nice TV’ might seeminnocent, but it can be condescending — like, ‘Oh, you don’t think Ishould have nice things?’” Assistant City Manager Denise Turner broughther 6-month-old son to the community center, and rallied the studentsbefore they took to their street assignments.

“Iheard a minister say, ‘We’re here to plant seeds, seeds ofimagination,” she said. “That’s what you’re doing today. Thank you fordoing that for my son.”

Therewere students from Bennett College, UNCG and Greensboro College. Whenanother speaker called the roll for A&T, a chorus of woof-woofsmade it clear which campus carried the dominant numbers.

Afterrunning out of houses on 10 th Street, Gary Brown’s team walked aquarter mile down a stretch of White Street without sidewalk past ashuttered warehouse. When they reached the second house on WellingtonDrive, the team leader spoke through the screen door to an elderlyhomeowner named Ella Bell Brown as the other students laughed.

“Who in the world sent you?” Ella Bell Brown asked.

Soon,all nine were inside her home making quick work of their task. Thesound of a shattering incandescent bulb rang from the bedroom.

“I’ll get that glass up,” Ella Bell Brown called out.

“Don’t let it bother you.”

NC A&T University student Jayson Wicker removes a light fixturein Karen Fox’s East White Oak trailer in preparation for changing herincandescent light bulbs out for more energy efficient fluorescents.Students changed light bulbs for almost 40 households in theneighborhood on Monday. (photo by Jordan Green)