ACI Leader Helen Perrine Retiring

March 01, 2010
March/April 2010
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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It was two weeks into Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977 that the Georgian donned a sweater on national television and said there was a permanent energy shortage, so we should all turn down our thermostats.

Helen Perrine is still trying to repair the damage done by that speech.

Americans don’t want to sit around in the cold waiting for summer to come, says Mrs. Perrine, executive director of ACI, a Waynesburg, Pennsylvania–based nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency in homes. Mrs. Perrine has been trying to convince people that they can be comfortable in their own homes and still use less energy.

Last summer, Mrs. Perrine, 65, announced she would retire in August 2010. The announcement has people in private industry and the government hoping that Perrine’s successor can continue to pull together the diverse constituencies that she has turned into sometimes surprising allies within the field.

It was only a couple of summers ago, when green energy was starting to come into the nation’s consciousness, that Helen Perrine looked a step beyond everyone else, says Larry Zarker, CEO of BPI, in Washington, D.C. “When we started talking green, she started talking about green workforce development and what that means,” says Zarker. “She was thinking out ahead of us. She’s not the policy person; what she does is pull everyone together to make sure we get it right.” He adds that Mrs. Perrine was such an important force in the residential energy efficiency industry that she was admitted to the BPI Hall of Fame in April 2009.

She is known at all levels of government and industry, says David Lee, who oversees EPA’s Energy Star program in Washington, D.C. “She’s this stable force.” Mrs. Perrine does not jump out and say what needs to be done, says Lee; rather, she works in the background to bring key players together. “At big meetings she is really quiet until something really needs to be spoken,” Lee says.

“I think of Helen as knitting together all the different threads that make up the energy conservation and home performance communities,” says Tom White, the publisher of Home Energy magazine. “She’s a real community builder and an activist who gets things done.”

Over the past 30 years Mrs. Perrine has pulled the industry together—both in terms of making sure that professionals receive the education they need, and in terms of networking to give scientists a chance to talk to contractors and other professionals in the field—at the annual Affordable Comfort conference held every April and at various regional conferences sponsored by ACI. Because of her, says Tom White, “people are now aware that their homes may be emitting more greenhouse gases than their cars.”

Mrs. Perrine is quick to say that she is no expert in energy efficiency, no expert in how to make a house work better. But over the years, she says, she has learned a lot—including the fact that for $5,000 the average house in Pennsylvania can undergo a makeover that will significantly cut a homeowner’s energy bills.

Early attempts at making homes more energy efficient caused new problems even as they solved others. Venting the dryer to the house, for example, captured the heat but also captured the moisture and caused mold. “We superinsulated homes and didn’t know we had to ventilate them,” Perrine says. “Canada really invented the term ‘house as a system.’”
Over time, says Mr. Zarker, the home energy industry came to understand not only that a house is a system, but that there are subsystems within that system. That thinking, Mrs. Perrine says, has led to new thinking on energy use—and making sure housing is as healthy as it is comfortable.

It is more cost-effective to have consumers save energy in their daily lives, or create “negawatts,” than it is to build more power plants to meet our energy needs. Says White, “Helen Perrine has created more negawatt power plants than anyone I know!”

Ann Belser is a business reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has worked for the newspaper since 1994 and has also covered municipal and county governments, as well as state and federal courts.

Copyright ©, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2010, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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