Signs of Sustainability: From Energy Nerd to Energy Navigator

By Karim Beers

Ronald Booker’s interest in energy efficiency and renewables is clear from his Ithaca home’s solar panels, passive solar room and wood stove that satisfies nearly all of his home’s heating needs.
After taking these personal steps to reduce his energy use, “Booker,” as he is known to his friends, realized that there was an opportunity to share his expertise by helping others navigate the sometimes complicated process of evaluating energy choices. Through Get Your Greenback Tompkins’ Energy Navigator program, Booker gained strategies and tools to help convey his passion and knowledge regarding energy conservation to others looking to take similar energy and money-saving steps.

Photo provided by Get Your Greenback Tompkins
Ronald Booker, second from left, looks on during an Energy Navigator training with energy expert Mark Pierce, right.

Booker, a self proclaimed “energy nerd” and Cornell University biology professor, has been interested in energy conservation for decades and credits his scientific background for his initial interest in the subject.
“Energy efficiency, heat transfer and stuff like that, building a tight house, and being concerned with heat transfer kind of comes naturally,” Booker said. “I know that sounds a little strange.”
Through conversations with his some of his custodian colleagues at Cornell, Booker realized that his knowledge of energy efficiency could be useful to others facing high energy costs, who may not have access to information on different options.
“A lot of building care workers live out in the country and don’t have access to natural gas, which is a relatively cheap and efficient form of energy,” said Booker. “Most of them heat with oil or propane which is very expensive.”
One particular experience offered Booker a look into the benefit that could come from sharing his knowledge with others. In conversation Booker learned that a building care worker at Cornell, a single mother of two, was living in manufactured housing and spending thousands on propane and electricity to heat her home in an outlying community.
“She was using propane with electric heat as a supplement and, at the time, the cost of electric heat and the cost of propane was the same,” he said. “She had no idea that they were the same, she thought electricity was cheaper.”
After Booker helped her to analyze the possible cost savings from other kinds of heat, she ended up getting a wood pellet stove that greatly reduced her heating bills.
“Issues like that, helping people think about what their options are and whether or not they are viable considering their goals,” he said. “That’s the sort of thing I’ve been interested in for awhile.”
Last year after having made the choice to reduce his role as a professor, the idea of devoting more of his time to educate others about energy conservation provides appealed to Booker. Through a friend he learned of the Energy Navigator program offered by Get Your Greenback Tompkins. The Energy Navigator program consists of 10 training sessions, covering local resources and information about sustainable steps including solar, heating with wood, and local food.
This training program is intended for “concerned and capable residents who help their friends, neighbors and other community members make environmentally and financially sound energy decisions by providing them with useful, locally relevant, unbiased, research-based information and resources,” according to the Get Your Greenback website.
After participating in the training program and becoming an Energy Navigator, Booker credited the structure of the program with enhancing his ability to help others with their energy efficiency needs.
“I think the most important thing was a better understanding of the resources that are available and the discussion and development of strategies to help get the word out,” he said. “Having a formalized view of the whole process: What agencies offer what kind of support? What do you need to do in order to get the support?”
Armed with the tools from the Energy Navigator program, Booker is now in the midst of organizing meetings with some of the service workers at Cornell in order to spread awareness of energy conservation options.
“We did two meetings with about 60 custodians and now we’re in the process of working with the administrators and the union that represents food service workers and custodians to set up a series of meetings to help hundreds of others go through our program,” he said.
These actions aimed at reducing energy costs also address issues surrounding housing inequality in Ithaca, according to Booker.
“Generally, the lower the cost of housing, the higher the costs for heating because of the quality of the building envelope,” he said. “When you drive through Ithaca you see lots of houses with solar panels because people have the money, interest, and desire to do something to help out in terms of global warming and reducing their energy costs.”
With housing prices so high within Ithaca and the surrounding area, many lower income residents are forced to live further away and spend more on energy to commute and heat their homes. By reducing some of these costs, individuals can reclaim some of their income for other uses and reduce some of the burdensome energy costs.
Booker says that being an Energy Navigator helped him bridge the gap between having passion for energy efficiency and helping others take meaningful, beneficial steps towards energy conservation.
“The issue was how do you get an energy nerd like me to take that knowledge and bring it to the community,” he said. “One thing (the program) did was it taught me how to translate my interest – my nerdy approach to energy – into something that was useful for the community.”
As for Energy Navigator qualifications, Booker says that the most important quality for a prospective Energy Navigator isn’t a high-level of technical knowledge.
“A willingness to help other members of the community; that’s what it’s all about, really,” he said. “Different people coming into the program will have different needs and interests.
“Someone who is interested in helping the community, but doesn’t have any background in energy conservation or things of that sort, that may be what they get out of the program because it’s also there as part of the training,” Booker added.
A second round of Energy Navigator training will start in March 2017 and interested individuals are encouraged to submit an interest form on the Get Your Greenback website or contact Karim Beers, Get Your Greenback director, to learn more.
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This is the latest installment in the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. Karim Beers is the director of the Get Your Greenback Tompkins program.