Community prioritization and weatherization: Unpacking Milwaukee’s climate and equity plan with Matt Donath

November 9, 2021 by Rachel Dortin

Matt Donath has a lot on his mind. As Environmental Sustainability Program Coordinator for the City of Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO), Donath is contributing to sections of the Climate and Equity Plan in support of the City County Taskforce on Climate and Economic Equity.  The taskforce is chaired by Alderman Nik Kovac and County Supervisor Marcelia Nicholson. Erick Shambarger, Environmental Sustainability Director for the City of Milwaukee ECO is the project manager and is supported by dedicated volunteers and working groups. 

Together, this team wants to make sure every one of hundreds of thousands of Milwaukee residents whose lives will be affected by the plan will feel the benefits. They are thoughtfully curating the plan to ensure they serve “communities that are often left behind by government programs or climate planning in general,” and weatherization is the first step. 

The City of Milwaukee has an admirable goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 45% community-wide by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050 or sooner. Donath outlined three main approaches to accomplish those goals as they roll out their climate and equity plan.

1. Community Prioritization

What struck me most about our conversation is the focus on people—the Milwaukee community and their distinct set of needs sits front and center in the climate and equity plan.

The city’s outreach centered the needs of various communities throughout the planning process, and they thoughtfully considered the city’s energy burden data. In comparing the data to the census map, they realized that neighborhoods of color have major energy poverty issues with many of those energy burdens reaching 10% or more in these areas.

With the rest of the city experiencing an average 3% energy burden, it was clear that a climate and equity plan would have to include ways to lower those energy burdens within those communities most in need. Doing so was important not only for energy efficiency, but to improve their lives in other ways as well.

Milwaukee is an old city, with many homes built in the early 1900s. According to Donath, “it’s a health issue and it’s an equity issue. The homeowners and families living in Milwaukee are impacted every second they are in the home, so weatherization is a major way for us to start trying to frame equity throughout this climate plan by impacting their day-to-day lives in the most basic way possible.”

2. Weatherizing existing homes

To do that, Milwaukee placed weatherization at the front and center of their climate plan. A lot of climate plans focus on achieving net zero with new builds as their first line of defense, but recognizing the burden above, Milwaukee set a goal within the climate plan to weatherize 400 existing units per year over the next ten years.

With their greenhouse gas inventory revealing total emissions just under 31% in the residential sector, the city knew that new buildings alone could not achieve the intended 45% reduction by 2030; weatherizing existing homes (between 1 and 4 units) will help achieve that goal and bring valuable cost savings to the communities that need them most.

The city plans to continue the Milwaukee Energy Efficiency (Me2) program that Slipstream implements to provide incentives that lower the barrier for financing to help upgrade homes, including high incentivization for heat pumps.

Donath emphasizes that education is important to make weatherization a feasible feature of the climate plan. The city will add information about weatherization and heat pumps to their website, work with contractors to educate homeowners on the best choices for their needs, and help homeowners truly understand the benefits of home upgrade from both health and financial perspectives.

They are also developing a partnership with the health department as another strategy for existing home retrofits. The health department currently enters homes for lead abatement, asthma, or other concerns, and the climate plan hopes to establish crossover opportunities for weatherization.

This program, which will be modeled after the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore, will address energy and other home health issues in one sweep. As Donath explains, the goal is to “increase touchpoints with the homeowners and create a holistic approach to home health within the city.”

3. Net (or Near Net) Zero New Builds

Weatherization is a great first step to climate planning, but the City of Milwaukee rightfully recognizes that “some of these housing units are beyond retrofit. Some are vacant or will be torn down. Being able to create cost-effective new builds that are or near net zero could help be more equitable.”

Part of the plan, according to Donath, will consider the potential of a modular housing factory to create net-zero or near-net-zero homes and help them achieve their potential goal of 500 new net-zero or near-net-zero homes per year.

Slipstream is impressed with Milwaukee’s holistic climate and equity plan and is proud to help administrate their PACE and Me2 programs that make the plan possible. The plan puts the community first, brings home upgrades to groups that need them most, and considers future builds secondary to retrofits, which best emphasizes equity. We are confident that the final plan will be a model for how we can best execute climate solutions for all people.

Moving the needle closer: Progress toward climate equity

Donath’s transparency is refreshing, and what I enjoyed most about our conversation is his recognition that there is still a long way to go to achieve climate equity. He admits that they are pushing electrification and heat pumps, and while they currently get a lot of energy from fossil fuels, they are working toward a greener grid.

They plan to work with their utility, We Energies, on new tariff programs that promote renewables and other clean technologies for the grid, and We Energies also committed to carbon neutral electricity by 2050. Donath says that “currently [their existing framework is] not the best, but it’s going in the right direction.”

Slipstream is inspired by Milwaukee’s climate and equity plan, and by Donath’s commitment to share progress while admitting shortcomings. Progress, not perfection, is what will bring climate solutions to all people.