Home efficiency business grows while helping low-income Houstonians

By Kristina Johnson

When 32-year-old Kareem Dale founded The Gaia Group Inc., a company that provides energy efficiency and weatherization services, he had no idea how gratifying it would be. Dale initially became interested in the energy efficiency industry because of its economic potential.

“I was looking at the construction market, and I saw things trending toward green building,” he said. “That eventually led me to energy efficiency.”

Dale spent nine months working with a partner on a feasibility study to see how well a full-time energy efficiency business might do in Houston. “We picked apart everything. And we realized ‘We’ve got something here.’”

Just as they were finishing their business plan, the Recovery Act was signed into law. The result? The City of Houston had funds to make much-needed upgrades to low-income homes – upgrades that would slash carbon pollution from wasted energy, and help struggling residents save on their utility bills.

It also meant that the fledgling Gaia Group was inundated with business right from the start. The company partnered with the City of Houston to perform energy audits for vulnerable residents, like senior citizens and low-income families.

Today, the Gaia Group is doing much more than turning a profit. They’ve helped thousands of low-income residents by making their homes healthier, safer, and more comfortable to live in. And by cutting energy consumption, the company is slashing the pollution that leads to climate change.

And it’s made a difference. Dale says one of the best feelings is when an elderly or low-income resident calls back after upgrades are finished to thank him and let him know how much they’re saving on their energy bills. The Gaia Group aims for a 30 percent reduction in kilowatt hours for each household they work on – and that translates into lower energy bills. For someone on a fixed income, it can mean the difference between buying groceries and going without.

The savings also have a ripple effect on the local economy, Dale said.

“Once the work is done, it pays back so quickly, it’s ridiculous. That money goes right back into the economy,” he said. “If you’re suddenly paying $60 instead of $100 on your energy bill, you can spend that extra $40 on food or clothing. You can use it to buy something you couldn’t buy before.”

But it’s not just about saving on utility bills. In Houston’s climate, poor insulation and wasted energy can create unhealthy and uncomfortable living conditions. The Gaia Group’s employees will often find elderly residents draping blankets over the windows in an attempt to keep the heat out. Proper weatherization helps keep them cool – and safe from heat-related illness, as well as pollen and air pollution.

Now, the Gaia Group is working to expand the benefits of energy efficiency even more. Dale, who participated in a business mentoring program in 2012 with the nonprofit group Green For All, has now started a pilot program that brings weatherization and upgrades to faith-based organizations.

So far, the company has worked on three Houston churches, with plans to do more. Dale uses the partnership as an opportunity to educate congregations about energy savings – and as a way to bring more workers into the field. His vision is to recruit church members who show an interest in weatherization, and connect them with job training programs that will help them get the skills they need to find an energy efficiency job.

Kristina Johnson is a senior writer at Green for All. This post was part of the Surdna Foundation’s Storybank initiative.

Photo credit: The Gaia Group Inc.