With roughly 50 people packed into her front driveway, Janie Garcia looked a little stunned.

While a few of those in the crowd were her family and friends, the majority were CPS Energy or city employees. Among them were Mayor Ron Nirenberg and CPS Energy President and CEO Rudy Garza. But the 74-year-old Garcia and her home were the stars of the show.

Hers was the 30,000th house to be weatherized under CPS Energy’s Casa Verde Weatherization Program, a process that involves finding air leaks, adding caulking and weatherstripping, and putting in insulation and energy-efficient light bulbs. The milestone was marked with a large party at Garcia’s Northwest San Antonio home last week, complete with a big cake, balloons and a dozen media members.

Under the utility’s revamped energy conservation program, weatherization will play a key part in what’s next for CPS Energy’s conservation efforts. Almost one-third of the $350 million allotted for the utility’s power-conserving “Sustainable Tomorrow Energy Plan” — or STEP Plan — will go toward helping low-income customers make their homes more energy-efficient and reducing energy costs; that’s up from 16% dedicated to those efforts under the old plan.

The Casa Verde program will continue to help low-income households around San Antonio get energy-saving updates to their home. However, it’s being broadened to include multifamily units in addition to single-family homes, Garza said. It also will align closely with city initiatives that will address structural issues in homes that were preventing residents from being eligible for the program, he added.

“When you factor in the work that our city owner is doing to make homes more structurally sound, then you layer on the fact that we can come in and weatherize them, now you’ve really got a combination that can get at all that housing stock out there that needs help,” Garza said.

Although Garcia has yet to see how the updates will affect her energy bill, she said she can already feel a difference in how warm or cool her home is, and said she is glad she heard about the program from her cousin.

“I don’t even need to turn on the heater or anything when it’s cold outside,” she said. ” Now it feels comfortable in here.”

A decade in the making

Gloria Astudillo first heard about CPS Energy’s then-relatively new Casa Verde program in 2012, having seen a notice for it on one of her energy bills.

Astudillo applied, hoping it could help knock her bill down a bit. Just three weeks later, she learned her application had been processed and she was eligible for some of the updates the program offered. Having a CPS Energy contractor weatherize her home didn’t take long, she said — the process took about three weeks.

The next month Astudillo was thrilled to see her energy bill had been cut in half.

“They came in and did the weather stripping, the caulking, changed out my light bulbs — and I immediately saw the differences,” she said. “I told everyone about it.”

One person she told was her cousin by marriage, Janie Garcia. Like many San Antonio residents, Garcia was shocked this summer to receive a higher-than-average bill. While the typical bill for the home she shares with her daughter and grandchildren is around $100, they were dumbstruck to receive a $400 bill in July, Garcia said.

She remembered her cousin mentioning the Casa Verde program and decided to apply.

“I just want to say that this was a great experience,” she said. “The contractor was so helpful and friendly and they went above and beyond the call of duty. I am so happy.”

Astudillo said she just submitted a new application to get more work done on her own home. CPS Energy recommends Casa Verde recipients reapply for weatherization updates every 10 years, spokeswoman Milady Nazir said.

From weatherization to conservation

Weatherization will play a big part in the new STEP program because it’s the fastest way to help make older San Antonio homes more energy efficient, Garza said.

Although CPS Energy has approved a new generation portfolio, the best way to make the local power grid stronger is to push conservation — and weatherization is the easiest way to help people conserve, Nirenberg said.

“We’re going to push as much capacity through weatherization as we possibly can because it reaches the most at-risk members of the community,” he said.

While the average Casa Verde home costs roughly $4,500 to weatherize, these costs are fully absorbed by CPS Energy, making the program free for the homeowners and now also for renters, said Jonathan Tijerina, CPS Energy’s vice president of enterprise risk and development.

Seeing these savings, renters of single-family homes and those living in multifamily housing units have long been asking for the program to include them, Garza said. CPS Energy staff knew the revamping of the program last year could be a good opportunity to expand who is eligible for Casa Verde, he said.

“It’s a huge equity component,” he said.

The utility’s original STEP program has saved about 1,000 megawatts in energy demand since it began in 2009 — far more than the original goal of saving 771 megawatts — and enough power, the utility says, to avoid building a new fossil fuel plant. One megawatt is enough electricity to power 200 Texas homes on a summer day.

“When you look at the last STEP program, we got more energy savings at a lower cost than what we thought, so you know, STEP was a success in every regard,” Garza said. “We know these [updates] will continue to make it even better.”

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.