West CAP: Retrofits for Low-Income Housing (2014) | wisconsinacademy.org
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West CAP: Retrofits for Low-Income Housing (2014)

Newly renovated by West CAP, this historic building on Main Street in Boyceville serves as the nonprofit's regional food pantry and has four energy-efficient apartments on the second level.


West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency Inc.
525 Second Street Glenwood City, WI 54013
United States

One of the first community action agencies formed in Wisconsin, West CAP (West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency Inc.) helps families overcome poverty and works to create a more just and sustainable society. Based in Glenwood City, Wisconsin (St. Croix County), the organization has worked since 1965 to provide low-income rental housing; to weatherize existing homes for low-income families; to prevent homelessness and home foreclosures; to assist low-income families with transportation, food security, job skills and literacy training, and family development case management; and to help low-income folks gain employment and build assets. West CAP also works to help create more sustainable and resilient communities in west central Wisconsin.

The rising energy cost for generating electricity has a particular impact on low-income households that have little flexibility to absorb higher rates. The inefficiencies in converting coal and gas into electrical energy are part of the problem. According to West CAP Executive Director Peter Kilde, in Wisconsin, 4,442 kilowatt/hours (kWh) of energy input from coal, for example, delivers only 1,814 kWh of electricity to the end user. Fossil-fuel-derived energy also causes substantial greenhouse gas emissions.

“Coal is the energy source that generates 63 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity. For coal, using Wisconsin’s average electricity cost of $.10/kWh, every time you spend $181 on your electric bill, that means you have also put one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” says Kilde.

In response to these negative impacts on both low-income home energy costs and on climate change, West CAP developed the Residential Alternative Energy and Conservation Program. The program rehabilitates existing low-income housing to improve energy efficiency and uses locally harvested, renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources to meet the remaining home energy requirements.

Energy Load Reduction

To work toward the goal of 80 percent energy use reduction on existing housing and ultimately to achieve zero net energy use (meaning that the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site) or better, West CAP’s approach includes a number of components. 

After an extensive energy audit, they “super insulate” the foundation, walls, ceilings, and other parts of the wall assembly with four-inch insulation on the exterior in addition to the six-inch stud walls. They use the REMOTE Wall system (Residential Exterior Membrane Outside-insulation Technique, from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Alaska), which offers an alternative frame construction to minimize the heat loss inside the house. Instead of applying a vapor barrier to the inside of the stud framing, West CAP installs the vapor barrier to the outside of the sheathing, moving approximately two-thirds of the wall’s insulating value to the outside. In this way, REMOTE allows more space for insulation and prevents humidity by keeping the air temperature above the dew point (at which water vapor condenses and turns to liquid water or frost).

In addition, the program uses energy-efficient glazing on the windows. “Essentially we turned the house into a kind of giant beer cooler,” Kilde explains. The program also protects indoor air quality by using 95-percent-efficient ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilation) or HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilation) systems operating 24 hours a day to exchange fresh air from outside with exhaust air from the home.

Renewable Energy Use

West CAP uses on-site renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels, including:

Using the Solmetric Suneye technique, which analyzes the solar energy availability on site.

Installing solar hot water systems at suitable sites, which can provide up to 71 percent of the energy needed for heating household water.

Installing solar photovoltaic panels for grid-connected electrical generation at some sites, as well as solar hot air panels to supplement home heating.

Other renewable energy technologies used by West CAP are geothermal or air-source heat pumps for both heating and cooling, off-peak thermal storage heating, biomass heating, and other passive house features. (A passive house is extremely air tight and highly insulated with triple-glazed windows. It is geographically situated to maximize winter sun and minimize summer sun and often has a ground earth heat exchanger or solar panels.)

A Fundamental Shift That Works

An analysis of a retrofitted duplex in Menomonie shows that the insulation saves 14.4 million BTUs of energy for heating and cooling per year, and the 10.9-kilowatt photovoltaic system can even bring a net gain of 1,107 kW/hours of electricity annually. And it works. The first electric bill West CAP got for this property after the retrofit was a $354 credit.

In Kilde’s opinion, the shift from conventional energy use to renewables is a fundamental change: “The systems for harvesting clean, free energy on-site are qualitatively different from the systems burning fossil fuels. This is a paradigm shift, not just a matter of cost-and-benefit analysis or pay-back analysis.”

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