Preserving the Environment

The Volunteer Army That’s Powering Denver’s Environmental Revolution

May 31, 2016
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The Volunteer Army That’s Powering Denver’s Environmental Revolution
Their small upgrades are making a huge difference in the Mile High City.

A decade ago, inspired by Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Denver residents Sue Okerson and Kevin Suchlicki met up with other neighborhood activists to chat about climate change. Grand ideas like protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and tax credits for wind and solar energies were mentioned, but everyone really wanted practical ways to help the planet right now. Having a light bulb moment, Sucklicki tossed out, “Well, what about something as simple as changing out everyone’s front porch light?”

Soon after, Okerson and Suchlicki started by handing out compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) at a local food bank and canvassing their neighborhoods. “We just went out and bought the bulbs, knocked on the door, talked to people and said, ‘What do you think?’” The pair explained to homeowners that CFLs use only one-quarter the energy of a traditional incandescent bulb — saving about $30 in electricity costs over the light’s lifespan. (Not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions it removes the environment.) After hearing the benefits, most let Okerson and Suchlicki switch out their porch bulb.

After they’d covered nearby blocks, this two-man light bulb brigade reached out to Groundwork Denver, a local nonprofit that could take their idea across the Mile-High City, focusing on low-income neighborhoods. Today, the Porch Bulb Project’s work goes beyond spiral-shaped light bulbs, offering to revamp homes with the latest green technology — all for free. To date, 4,500 volunteers have swapped out 21,400 front porch bulbs, completed 2,480 home energy assessments, made major energy improvements (like adding insulation or replacing furnaces, water heaters or refrigerators) in 1,132 houses and planted 2,660 trees. “The light bulb just became the foot in the door for a bigger conversation about climate change,” says Wendy Hawthorne, executive director of the Porch Bulb Project.

When Okerson first started knocking on doors, she had a dim view of how quickly Americans could change their ways. “People are lazy,” she remarks. “It isn’t going to happen in my lifetime that the seas will rise and everything will go to hell in a hand-basket… It’s not a crisis in their face.” Yet when Okerson last went out to with a Porch Bulb Project delegation, she noticed many houses with CFLs already lighting their entryways. “Okay, so we have done something,” she thought to herself. “That’s a really good feeling.”

Hopefully that feeling will keep these environmental soldiers dedicated to their mission for a long time.

MORE: Can Americans Accept This Environmentally-Friendly Burial Method?

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