The Alliance for Affordable Energy's workforce-training program for weatherization and energy efficiency partners with LA Green Corps to provide young adults with green job skills in a market still finding its place in the city.
Founded in 1985, the alliance is just one of the partners in the Conservation Corps of Greater New Orleans, a network of service-learning projects and programs in Louisiana (and a part of the AmeriCorps network and an initiative of the Department of Labor). The alliance serves as a community-based action program for Louisiana's electric and gas consumers. Its work crews learn to weatherize homes, install solar paneling and tankless water heaters and master other techniques that cut energy costs and make homes more efficient.
LA Green Corps and the training program aim to provide environmentally focused, 21st-century job skills to young people, and offer an educational award in exchange for service.
Housed in the old ArtEgg building under the Broad Street overpass, the program is just one of the initiatives of the alliance's BuildSmart Learning Center. The 2,500-square-foot center serves homeowners, builders and anyone who needs advice for something as simple as changing a light bulb.
"It's incredibly valuable," says Rick Yelton, a field supervisor for the allliance. "It's a workshop we can use to apply the skills we teach."
After a friend gave Cohea a flier for the first meeting, he attended the program's week-and-a-half orientation in early October. Now Cohea joins his crew working on homes throughout New Orleans for Americorps. Like many crewmembers, Cohea is from the Lower Ninth ward and hopes some new ideas in the rebuilding process could revitalize more than a career path.
"Young people want something to do," says Kelvin Hewitt, the program's crew leader and recruitment specialist. "There's a want in the community many feel an obligation."
"We're working with people who have a lot to gain entering the job market in this particular industry," says Yelton, who explains the program's only requirements are that its crew members are 18 to 24 years old and have not had a job for more than a year. "We want to make sure we're getting to a population that can really benefit the most from a workforce development curriculum."
The three-month-long program introduces crew members to the green economy and green job market and later focuses on job skills with hands-on experience in the field.
"And they may need more training on that (after the program), but we're preparing them for the next step, building up relationships between these young people and green employers," Yelton says. "We're building that bridge."
Though the program offers four cycles of training each year, Hewitt and Yelton agree the response to the program has been overwhelming.
"I think young people are very excited about the opportunities, very passionate about rebuilding the city," Yelton says. "Through [the training] process, they understand why energy efficiency and rebuilding in a green way is relevant to rebuilding in New Orleans and long-term sustainability."
Inside the center, a life-sized shotgun house showcases dozens of different practical applications and tips, from the very simple like replacing your gas water heater with a tankless one or using nontoxic cleaning supplies to the latest in solar panels, steel-beam construction, insulation and everything in-between. The cutaway house turns sometimes abstract and difficult changes into realistic (and extremely cost-effective) solutions for the everyday homeowner.
"People have wanted energy efficiency but needed a very practical pathway to make decisions for their home and get work done," says Forest Bradley-Wright, the alliance's sustainable rebuild coordinator. "In an immediate sense, anyone coming with questions is going to walk away with something practical they can and will do."
Bradley-Wright developed the idea for BuildSmart shortly after Hurricane Katrina, realizing New Orleanians wouldn't have access to energy-efficient products and services when it came time to rebuild.
'We recognized we needed to step into that role so people could build back in the best possible way," he says. "We feel very strongly that New Orleans is ready for energy efficiency, green building and solar. New Orleans has been behind the curve, but the opportunity implicit in that is tremendous."
With a strong focus on affordability, BuildSmart offers simple solutions like Frank Caminita's Duct Saddle to make energy efficiency and green living an option for everyone, not just young trendsetters and green-minded rebuilders. Caminita's invention elevates flexible air ducts, prevents kinks from forming and helps carry a full volume of air while reducing the energy required to run the motor. Inside BuildSmart's model home, a cutaway reveals a healthy duct system supported by a series of Duct Saddles. Though each saddle may cost less than $10, the savings could cut hundreds from electricity bills each year.
"People are saying, "Hey, I want this product, I want that product.' They have an option when they've never had that option before," Caminita says. "Really, if you stop and think about it, if you call an electrician, an air-condition man or a plumber, you got to trust them. A lot of guys want to get out there and get the money and go. But BuildSmart will be able to school people teach them how to cut down their electricity bill."
Caminita, a nearly 40-year veteran in the air-conditioning business, sees BuildSmart as a unique business opportunity.
"The Alliance for Affordable Energy and how they plan on going forward with various projects I think to myself, "This is going to turn big, this is going to really open people's eyes up,'" he says.
With public workshops and an expanding resource library, the center hopes to school the whole community rather than an interested few.
"We see it as a space for people to come back to again and again with many aspects worth coming back to," Bradley-Wright says.
"You got to crawl before you walk," Caminita says. "You got to have a place to start."