Doing Better at Doing Good

Nonprofit works to lower NC residents energy bills

February 16, 2013 

When you glance at the back door of your house and notice daylight peeking through around the edges, do you know how to seal the door to keep the cold air out? If you do know how to fix it – and especially if you don’t – Clean Energy Durham wants to work with you.

As winter drags on and energy costs climb higher, more communities across North Carolina are starting to pay attention to an innovative service from the rapidly expanding nonprofit.

Clean Energy Durham has formally launched Pete Street, a high-impact program that blends energy efficiency initiatives with neighbor-to-neighbor community development to help state residents reduce their energy consumption – and save money.

The goal is to develop networks of neighborhood volunteers, or everyday “Petes,” who can teach their neighbors a variety of energy-saving tips and techniques, from sealing pull-down attic doors to installing low-flow regulators on kitchen faucets.

The program is driven by a belief that energy efficiency should be available to all state residents regardless of income level or home-ownership status, says Clean Energy Durham Executive Director Philip Azar, who notes that people are more likely to heed energy tips if they hear them from their neighbors.

For $5,000 to $15,000, municipalities, counties, utilities, neighborhoods or coalitions of community agencies can purchase an array of workshops and training sessions that teach quick, effective energy-conserving fixes – and prepare attendees to share them with their neighbors in demonstrations requiring just 10 minutes per fix. So far, Chapel Hill, Siler City, Wilson and Warren County have signed on for the Pete Street program, and communities ranging from Florida to California have inquired about it.

“It’s practical, it’s hands-on and it’s things that people can do for themselves,” Azar says.

And the impact can be measured.

A study conducted by the UNC Environmental Finance Center showed that Warren County residents who attended a Pete Street Hands-On Workshop and acted on the tips they learned there used 17.5 percent less energy than neighbors who did not attend.

The Pete Street program, presented in detail at, is the most recent example of individuals and organizations throughout North Carolina exercising national leadership in energy sustainability.

Saving energy

In Greensboro, hotelier and restaurateur Dennis Quaintance, who owns the Lucky 32 restaurant in Cary, pioneered the Proximity Hotel. Upon opening in 2008, it became the first hotel in America to earn the highest rating offered by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system.

With water heated by 100 solar panels on the roof, a high-tech elevator that feeds energy back into the building’s electrical grid and an array of ultra-efficient materials, the Proximity uses 39 percent less energy and 33 percent less water than comparable hotels.

Responsible use

Over in the Queen City, Envision Charlotte wants to create a scalable model for energy sustainability in urban cores nationwide. About 15 months ago, the public-private partnership launched Smart Energy Now – an effort to reduce energy use in Charlotte’s uptown office buildings by 20 percent over five years.

The initiative, spearheaded by Duke Energy, Charlotte Center City Partners and several corporations, involves sophisticated monitoring of energy use and hundreds of workers who have been trained to spread the word and model responsible energy use in their buildings.

The project won a leadership award late last year from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The challenge now for all of these groundbreaking approaches: finding ways to connect and scale them across the state. The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association is doing its part, making a wealth of news, legislative updates and resources available at

It recently reported that North Carolina ranked 15th nationally in 2012 for new LEED-certified commercial buildings. With all the talent and expertise already being devoted here to energy sustainability, is there any reason we can’t get to No. 1?

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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