Facing Challenges and Reconnecting With Friends at CLEAResult’s PA Energy Conference

Jeaneen Zappa presenting at a podium during the CLEAResult conference
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March 23, 2023
By Jeaneen Zappa

Where do thoughts of sorcerers, old friends, enthusiastic new hires, workforce issues and “dad jokes” all align? At CLEAResult’s first Pennsylvania Energy Conference, held March 7 and 8 in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania – close to the state capitol, Harrisburg.

The conference marked a new effort from CLEAResult, our member business that manages utility energy efficiency savings programs in Pennsylvania for First Energy, Peoples Gas and Duquesne Light.  I had the opportunity to attend and present a session and also co-lead a session with event organizer Christina Bowen, Senior Program Manager at CLEAResult.

The event felt appropriate for its Penn Harris hotel setting: full of pleasant surprises inside a humble wrapper. Besides a posse of CLEAResult team members presenting on nuts-and-bolts industry standards—including EE vs. Conservation, Overcoming Scheduling Challenges and Completed Job Packets—the event included illuminating break-out sessions. Here are some takeaways and memorable moments:

1.  Workforce is a challenge for everyone everywhere. Training centers and employers are tackling the challenges directly, in the absence of a larger, more connected statewide system to serve the industry.

  • Alison Diehl, Executive Director of the Penn State-affiliated Clean Energy Center led a session on How to Scale the Workforce. Her borrowed term, “the silver tsumani” describing the wave of retirements among skilled trades workers, elicited a room full of head nodding, along with a call for more HVAC techs and electricians’ training. Likewise, Alison’s slides on CEC’s planned Building Green Futures pre-apprenticeship program for weatherization workers met enthusiastic praise just shy of actual pom-pom rustling cheers. 

  • KEEA is excited to be part of one of these pre-apprenticeship cohorts. We’re even more excited that CEC is leading efforts in PA to get the full apprenticeship model from Building Performance Association over the threshold of Labor & Industry recognition and approval in the Commonwealth – especially useful now that BPA has secured Department of Energy full authorization of this apprenticeship program!

  • Fresh faces brought joy and reminded me of why I am in this field. Alex, the 2-months-on-the-job, under-25 new hire at Green Stone Energy effused enthusiasm for the difference we can make in peoples’ lives through our work. And while still fresh to EE, he brought a seasoned point of view. His refusal to be daunted by the inevitable “no’” when chasing opportunities stood out. Philosophically inclined to focused on being “in the moment,”  Alex was armed with the sort of reality-check grounding that two years of hard-earned, door-to-door sales experience for a telecommunications company cultivated. The point? Broaden the radar in hiring to catch people like Alex.  Hire the attitude and train the skills.  Boss-man Erick O’Brien seemed to agree.

  • Contractor friend, Nick Karlo, General Manager at Mitchell Plumbing & Heating echoed that sentiment. At Mitchell, they are heavily focused on developing and retaining talent. In addition to on-the-clock celebrations and cookouts, every 10 weeks employees take a mandatory paid burnout-prevention week of leave. Nick said that when two team members with higher-earning spouses both left to be full-time caretakers for their young children, Mitchell tried to start a daycare facility. Now that’s an industry gap to fill if we want to recruit younger workers…

  • Another contractor friend, Myke Harrier from A&P Furnace, voiced a repeat concern from Mitchell. Both engage with various trade schools and vo-tech training centers and, as Myke said, “Every person in the classes already has a job!” He said it’s hard to hire.

  • Xavier Walter from BPA said it’s the new approach: hire first, then train instead of trying to get people after training is completed. New state coordinator, Maria Lewis, co-led a break-out session with Xavier on diversifying the workforce. By asking who owned a dog, we suddenly found ourselves excluding the two unwitting non-pet-owning attendees – making the point to think about how you are helping people to feel that they belong. 

2.  Explaining multi-family programs feels like being a sorcerer – full of special secrets possessed only by the knowledgeable and held over their subjects, who are filled with equal measures of hope for a cure, adulation, and trepidation about the wrath of the EE gods. During a break-out session on multi-family programs, I was part of a surreal baptism-by-fire for a determined industry newbie and multi-family property developer trying to understand his funding options. The breakout participants and the developer plowed through the vagaries of “commercial” versus “residential” meters, addressing the viability of various retrofit options using a required decision tree, how that decision tree is based on percentages of dwelling units occupied by people under XYZ% of the Federal Poverty Guideline, the age of the building, the measures involved (e.g., light conservation measures vs. heating units), and on and on. Ultimately, each property requires special consultation with the utility contact or program manager. It’s time to think about simplifying this so that people can figure out benefits without needing a crystal ball.

3. A little bit of silliness can break up a lot of dense information. Scheduled to present in the “nap time” (i.e. post-lunchtime) slot, I promised ever-worsening “dad jokes” to keep the attendees on track in the dizzying array of new federal energy efficiency programs, rebates and 25C tax credits. From heat pumps to insulation to air sealing and appliances, residential contractors have an arsenal of new tools to add to their kits. So where does a fish keep his money? In a river bank of course! 

4. Happy Hour was amazing! I’m hiring CLEAR to organize my next party. A buzzing room, an inviting and surprisingly (in this humble, nondescript hotel) delicious spread of food and the requisite beverages on hand…

5. Virtual is efficient. In-person evokes emotion. So good to see current collaborators like Gio Brackbill and Laura Edinger from PA Utility Law Project (PULP) and longtime industry contacts and friends after a long absence! I reconnected with the ever-gracious Carmen Malloy from the Peoples Gas Universal Services programs; former colleague and SuperGirl energy auditor Patty DiGuilio; her ACTION Housing colleagues Ken Provlic and Pam Miljus; and Dominick Pandolfo from Demand Home Performance, one member of the band of Pittsburgh-region building science geeks formerly known as “DEAWP – the Diagnostic Energy Auditors of Western PA”. I remember DEAWP calling themselves the “Doo-Wop” group! Still makes me smile….

Congratulations to CLEAResult on an educational and fun event! Here’s hoping for more high-quality EE programming from them in the future.

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