2017-06-09 / Front Page

Q & A: Chris Kessler

Repaying a city that’s given ‘nothing but positives’
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland's Chris Kessler, left, general manager of Yarmouthbased Rook Energy Solutions, poses with Rook employees Brian Watson and Chelsea Benoit, during a recent energy audit of a Willard neighborhood home. (Courtesy photo) South Portland's Chris Kessler, left, general manager of Yarmouthbased Rook Energy Solutions, poses with Rook employees Brian Watson and Chelsea Benoit, during a recent energy audit of a Willard neighborhood home. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — To most people who know his name, Chris Kessler is “renter guy,” the crusading activist who founded the South Portland Tenants Association and lit a fire under the city council to get serious about addressing affordable housing issues the rapidly gentrifying other Portland.

But Kessler, 34, is more than that, and he readily admits that he owes his current career as general manager of Rook Energy Solution in Yarmouth to the city of South Portland. It’s a debt he tries his best to repay, as he explained in a recent interview with The Sentry.

Q: What brought you to South Portland, originally?

South Portland resident Chris Kessler, general manager of Rook Energy Solutions, points to a blower used to depressurize a building as a way to heck for air leaks, during a recent energy audit of a Willard neighborhood home. (Courtesy photo) South Portland resident Chris Kessler, general manager of Rook Energy Solutions, points to a blower used to depressurize a building as a way to heck for air leaks, during a recent energy audit of a Willard neighborhood home. (Courtesy photo) A: My wife Jessie and I came to Maine on our honeymoon. After we went back to Syracuse, New York, we were, like, “We’ve got to get out of here.” We just didn’t like it living there. But we really had liked it here, so, we had friends here who helped us find a place, and from that we landed in Knightville, across from Hannaford. We’ve rented in Knightville since he came here. Both of our children were born here, and as of last year we now own our own place on Stanley Street, right on the border of Hinckley Park, which we think is going to be great for our kids. We really lucked out. I continually recognize how lucky I am that we landed in South Portland.

Q: How did you get involved in the energy industry?

A: It was 2009 and I had just lost my job in social services and was basically just trying to survive. But I was looking to get involved in things, to see if one thing could lead to the next. I ran for city council that year, because, really, I figured, I’ve got nothing else to do – why not? I also go really involved in the dogs-on-the-beach issue.

And then, just from being in and around city hall a lot, I found out about a program tough a group called Green South Portland, where volunteers helped winterize people’s homes, wrapping windows, installing CO2 detectors, energy efficient light bulbs and shower heads, and doing caulking – things like that. And at that time I was looking to volunteer in the community. I was definitely looking for a job, still. But, really, I knew that the best way to find a job, the best way for people who are out of work to build references and build skills is to get out there and volunteer – to be active in the community. The home energy work interested me because, really, I wanted to reinvent myself. I felt like I was going nowhere. I went to college for music, and ended up in social services, but now I was out of work and really searching for a purpose, I guess you could say.

Q: How did you make the transition from volunteer to professional?

A: I did the volunteer thing for about a year and, through all of that and being involved with the city, I found out about this program it had going using stimulus money from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to train people to become energy auditors. It was something the assistant city manager at the time, Eric Carson, was doing to try and create local jobs with the federal money. So, I applied for the position and got it – I’m not sure if I was the only one who applied, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one put though the program – and that’s led to my now six-year career in this industry.

Q: What was that initial program?

A: It was a grant for $1,600 that paid for a twoweek class as Southern Maine Community College for certification through the Building Performance Institute. Any energy auditor in Maine has to be certified through this organization to prove they understand all of the health and safety issues regarding insulating, air sealing, and zone pressures. I then got more involved in the city side of the Green South Portland work. The people we were helping were applicants to a program that was then called Warm Homes, Cool City. The city would use CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money that came down from HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) to perform energy audits for income-eligible people, and we would then do some of the baseline work I mentioned. Anyway, the person who did the audits for the city at the time, Jim Beaulieu, he let me shadow him as he did the audits. He was great. He brought me under his wing and was integral in helping get me in my feet as an energy auditor.

Q: And what was your career path like from there?

A: My first gig as an auditor was with the Opportunity Alliance with their energy assistance program. I did that for a year and then I worked for a local weatherization company, then three years for ReVision Energy. Then I worked for myself for a time, then for Maine Solar Solutions, and now I manage Rook. So, I’ve worked the gamut of every aspect of residential energy efficiency, really.

Q: How many homes would you say you’ve buttoned up in that time?

A: Well, if you take an average of five site visits per week, I’ve probably been in about 1,500 homes across southern Maine. If I were to guess I’d say maybe nearly 10 percent of those in South Portland.

Q: So, do you believe the city got a good deal on its investment in you?

A: I would think so. In addition to all the people I’ve helped lower their energy bills, and cut down on the fossil fuels used to heat their homes, that $1,600 really changed my life forever. It really gave me a hand up and set me on the path to finally become a stable resident of South Portland. I mean, yeah, I finally became a homeowner.

Q: And you now do the job you once shadowed, is that right?

A: Yes. Last year the city put out an RFP (Request for Proposal) and I applied for it though Rook. There were several applicants, including Jim again. But I got the contract for the next two years. So, the student had become the master I guess you could say.

Q: What should people know about this program you work for in the city?

A: Well, that it’s there. The city has been offering it for years and a lot of people are eligible for it but don’t even know it’s out there. There’s about $8,000 set aside per year. So, yeah, it’s not a big pool, but it’s money that can really help those who need it.

Q: How far does that money go?

A: Well, a typical air sealing job can cost between $1,200 and $2,000. So, it used to help maybe four to five homes per year. But now Efficiency Maine has a similar grant available that uses the HUD program as its income-eligibility criteria. That kicks in most of the money – $1,000 for a $50 co-pay from the city, which the city uses its CDBG money for. That really boosts the potential to as many as 100 homes that could be served.

Q: Who can apply for the program?

A: Pretty much any working family. The income-eligibility is low-to-moderate income, which means 80 percent of the area median income. In South Portland, that’s $43,050 per person, or $61,450 for a family of four. It is only for an owner-occupied home, however. But it’s important to apply even if program funds have run out for the year, because the eligibility is used for Efficiency Maine credits. One of the other things they have is a $2,000 rebate for a heat pump. So, that’s huge. There’s the potential to really install a lot of efficiency measures.

Q: How great is the need for this type of efficiency work in South Portland?

A: You have homes that were building the 1800s, sections that went up in the 1950s, but all of them have the same kinds of issues. They all share similar problems. In virtually every home the basement is insulated, which is often where their heating system is. And there’s virtually always air leaks going into the attic space. So, the need is all over the city.

Q: What is the typical savings on the work you do?

A: Well, in a home we did in South Portland just this past week on Everett Street in the Willard neighborhood, we reduced the air leakage by 25 percent. That reduction, with oil at about $2.50 a gallon, that’s going to save that homeowner about $180 per year, based on their size of that home. So, that’s pretty awesome. And as oil increases in price, that will mean greater savings.

Q: And how do you feel about the work that you do?

A: I feel fulfilled by my work. One of the greatest thing about being in this industry is that I get to educate people, I get to help save them money and give them more financial independence, and I get to help save the earth as well. That’s just a triple whammy. Plus, I get to travel and meet new people ever day and not be stuck in an office. I can honestly say that I have a good job. I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t afforded this opportunity by the city. The certification it paid for really gave me a hand up, that’s what we need more of, because for those who can take that – a hand up not a hand out – and run with it, that’s what it’s all about. The opportunity I was given has resulted in nothing but positives for me and my family certainly, but also for those people I help every day.

Q: How does someone apply for a free energy-efficiency audit and home weatherization improvement grant?

A: They can apply on the city website. There’s an online application on the Community Development page. Or they can contact Maeve Pistrang in the South Portland Office of Community Development by emailing mpistrang@southportland.org, or calling 347-4139.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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