Worcester Green Low-Income Housing Coalition: Creating Energy Through Partnerships

David McMahon

As solar farms have begun to spring up throughout Massachusetts, a group of low-income housing providers and people from low-income communities noticed a growing disparity between the growth of solar in the suburbs and the lack of solar opportunities in the city.  Determined and filled with a DIY spirit, Worcester Green Low-Income Housing Coalition has taken on the challenge of developing solar and energy efficiency programs and advocacy in New England's second largest city.

A combination of advocacy efforts and determination to build our own energy projects has led to policy victories, as well as energy programs that have been built into the fabric of low-income housing of Worcester and beyond!

Worcester Green Low-Income Housing Coalition was formed to both advocate for innovative clean energy policy, while also utilizing our know-how to effectively build resilience and new clean energy opportunity into the fabric of low-income housing in greater Worcester, New England's second largest community.  

Our policy work in recent years has focused on issues such as oil burning furnaces-- 32% of Massachusetts' population burns a lake's worth of oil each year to heat their homes and they do so with an average 20 year-old furnace operating at 50% efficiency.  Despite this, oil customers have been unable to participate in energy efficiency programs statewide.  We have worked hard to advocate for a change in these systems, and utilities have started to show some inclination to address the issue.  

We also work with low-income housing providers to build new systems into their housing, thus lowering utility costs in the nation's second oldest housing stock, and allowing these agencies to "re-purpose" funds for housing and services.  For example, we overhauled a barely-functioning and extremely inefficient furnace at a social-model homeless men's recovery program with 30 beds.  Working with the agency’s staff, WGLIHC applied for and secured $65,000 to fully replace the heating system with a 95% efficient gas-fired unit. The changes are expected to drastically reduce carbon output and save $10,000 on heating bills.  

Beyond these projects, we have provided insulation for four buildings of low-income family housing, insulation for a family shelter, and a significant outreach program resulting in expanded geography for our work, including nearly 100 buildings for youth housing we intend to address in the next year.  Our growing membership base of low-income people and their allies help facilitate both policy change and work directly influencing low-income housing in Massachusetts through energy efficiency programs, solar energy, pellet-fired furnaces, insulation, and small gray water systems.  

In the last year we have faced challenges including uncertainty about the future of environmental and energy policy, as well as skepticism from stakeholders and would-be clean energy adopters. However, our work will continue to focus on bringing stories and energy from low-income housing communities to stakeholders. For example, we participated in multiple solar actions last year, both locally and statewide and brought the stories of low-income people to legislators and stakeholders to show how energy savings can be utilized for more housing and programs for homeless populations.  

We have found that the low-income housing community is often over-stretched and staff often don’t have the time nor capacity to explore innovative energy programs.  For some, there is a knowledge gap in the available technologies. One housing agency was hesitant about the installation of a pellet furnace, convinced they would need to shovel pellets, getting everyone covered in soot.  The idea that a modern pellet-fired furnace has a three ton storage hopper with an automated feed system was a new concept.

Energy policy has the power to directly impact the lives and well-being of low-income people. This idea is perhaps the most alluring to housing agencies involved in our programs.  We hope to continue to build relationships between energy efficiency and housing communities, to give voice to low-income people in policy development that impacts their communities, and to introduce new emerging energy technology where it can have the most impact in bolstering the social safety net!

We were recently invited to join Governor Baker's Affordable Access to Clean Energy Initiative steering committee and to present our model at the national HUD Renew Conference.  Our work will continue as our staff, members, volunteers, and allied agencies continue to grapple with energy costs and clean energy policies in the Commonwealth, working for a clean energy future and building energy innovation into the social safety net of our communities.

Want to learn more? Visit WGLIHC's Facebook Page!