Clean Heating at Cool Costs

A $3.15 million Wells Fargo grant will enable Chicago nonprofit Elevate to decarbonize 100 homes for low- and moderate-income residents and build the capacity and expertise of 24 contractors of color to participate in the green economy.
Feb 17, 2023 9:00 AM ET

When Katherine Parks’ furnace started to fail, she knew replacing the unit was nonnegotiable. She needed heating to endure Chicago’s frosty winters — and to continue operating her home day care center.

Estimates she received were cost prohibitive. Fortunately, she knew about the climate justice organization Elevate, which installed energy-efficient electric heat pumps and upgraded Parks’ sealing and insulation to prevent heat loss from her home.

Parks, who’d been covering her windows with plastic sheeting to keep in heat, felt a variety of emotions: overjoyed, grateful, blessed. “I don't have to worry about if my furnace is going to explode. It removed a lot of stress and worry for me on a day-to-day basis.”

“Because of the partnership and the generosity of the Wells Fargo Foundation, we were able to do a complete upgrade for Katherine’s home, making it energy efficient and comfortable,” said Anne Evens, Elevate CEO.

Evens estimates that Parks’ utility bills will decrease by about $800 a year — a significant amount that, she said, “means you go from just barely scraping by to having a little bit of a cushion.”

Eliminating the struggle of deciding which bills to pay

Earlier this year, Wells Fargo donated $3.15 million to Elevate for a two-year project to decarbonize 100 Chicago homes for low- and moderate-income families and to build the capacity and expertise of 24 contractors of color to participate in the green economy.

“One of the most significant remaining contributions to greenhouse gas emissions is related to the energy we consume to heat or cool or power our homes,” Evens said. “What we aim to do is make sure these clean energy upgrades are happening in affordable housing first and not last.”

Elevate’s vision matches well with Wells Fargo’s commitment to supporting sustainability.

“Wells Fargo’s climate commitment includes climate-aligned philanthropy to ensure that the most vulnerable communities are not left behind,” said Robyn Luhning, chief sustainability officer.

“Programs such as Elevate’s help low-income families and historically underrepresented communities access the benefits of a reliable, equitable, and sustainable economy,” Luhning said. “This is especially important because heating and cooling cost savings can significantly impact monthly budgets.”

Evens explained that people living in affordable housing tend to struggle with energy bills — often having to prioritize which bills to pay. This effort will reduce or eliminate that struggle.

“Facing disconnection notices and living through this huge stress of wanting to keep your electricity on and your gas on, it’s absolutely not necessary because we have the technologies to reduce their energy consumption by over 50%,” Evens said.

Retraining a workforce in clean technologies

In addition to providing economic solutions for homeowners, Elevate is also training women, veterans, and people of color to install emerging technologies.

Energy efficiency installations and the transition to clean technologies also create job opportunities. Elevate’s Contractor Accelerator Program “provides opportunities in job training and contractor engagement for people who have had limited access to this fast-growing sector,” said Luhning.

The Contractor Accelerator Program has trained and certified 200 contractors. Elevate also teaches them how to bid on projects and develop a business growth plan.

Luhning, who attended a roundtable discussion with Elevate contractors, was moved by what she heard.

“It was incredibly compelling to hear from this community of contractors. One person said: ‘We get left behind in every economic opportunity. For once, we’re not going to be left behind.’”

Enduring extreme heat with adequate cooling

As critical as heating is in cold climates, cooling is also becoming a must-have, according to Evens.

It’s rare for people to have cooling in places where high temperatures are atypical, she said. “With climate change bringing extreme heat, folks who don’t have cooling can’t be expected to survive multiple days of 110+ degree weather. I view that as an injustice.”

Fortunately, the heat pumps Elevate is installing serve a dual purpose, providing both heating and cooling. Evens said there’s a lot of excitement from residents about having cooling for the first time — especially in households with children, seniors, and people with respiratory health issues. Parks is likewise enthusiastic, as the kids in her day care will enjoy respite from the heat in the summer.

“In addition to having reliable heating equipment and less stress in her life,” said Evens, “Katherine also now has cooling, which is increasingly important as we all face increasing extreme heat.”

Wells Fargo hopes to learn from its partnership with Elevate and replicate it in other communities, Luhning said.

“We’re boosting access to clean, affordable energy. We’re boosting access to jobs. And we’re lowering carbon emissions — all at the same time. It’s a win-win-win,” Luhning said. “There’s no trade-off here, just winning.”