Electrifying Homes For Free
Senior Energy Engineer, Elevate
Building the framework for an equitable future in sustainabilityHonnie Aguilar Leinartas (M.S. CE ’14)
At Elevate, a nonprofit whose mission is to ensure that the benefits of clean energy reach those who need it the most, Honnie Aguilar Leinartas is the lead engineer for its single-family electrification and decarbonization programs.
She takes families through the multi-stage process of tests and calculations that evaluate if a home is eligible to retrofitting existing systems to improve their efficiency and replacing gas appliances with electric alternatives.
“We’re starting to electrify dozens of homes in Black and brown communities, and we’re doing this completely free of charge,” she says.
The upgrades reduce the house’s carbon footprint and eliminate the health risks associated with burning gas.
Part of Aguilar Leinartas’s job is to perform tests at the home and analyze those results to make sure that, when all upgrades are finished, the homeowner can expect lower monthly utility bills.
“It’s really important that we get rid of all the gas completely because in the city of Chicago, even if you’re not using gas, if you have a gas connection you’re paying up to $750 a year in fixed fees, so it’s important to eliminate that cost for our customers,” she says.
Elevate’s mission is to provide these services to people who would be unlikely to have been able to make these upgrades on their own, making sure that the transition to more environmentally sustainable technologies happens equitably, leaving no one behind.
Aguilar Leinartas says she first became interested in sustainable energy while studying at Illinois Institute of Technology.
She noticed her own home at the time—a typical old Chicagoland house with no insulation, single-pane windows, and no proper air sealing—lacked energy efficiency, and wondered how she and the thousands of homeowners in similar situations could make changes.
“A lot of people were focusing on new construction, but the majority of the buildings that we have are already built,” she says. “They’re the most energy intensive, and they’re the most challenging to try to retrofit, so how do we preserve the historical nature of these buildings without completely replacing them?”
Aguilar Leinartas used her master’s thesis to examine this topic, exploring a range of options for Chicago homes. She calculated significant energy and cost savings if these solutions were to become widespread. Now her job is to actually implement those changes.
“Basically, I’m on the program that is validating my thesis, which is really, really cool,” she says. “Not many people get to say that.”
Aguilar Leinartas continues to collaborate with Illinois Tech. Elevate provides mentorship for students participating in the United States Department of Energy Solar Decathlon team, and Aguilar Leinartas has been overseeing an internship program at Elevate, which allows accepted students to get a wide range of hands-on experience in the organization.
“If you were to ask me before I applied to Illinois Tech if I would ever have imagined that I’d be where I am right now, I would have said no,” she says. “My studies at Illinois Tech helped me realize that there are a lot more facets to sustainability and energy conservation than what we can do in the future or in ‘next time’ scenarios. We can also change our past mistakes to make existing buildings, processes, and mindsets prepared for the future too.”
Aguilar Leinartas says she hopes to continue helping the community throughout her career.
“I’ve always wanted to be part of something very meaningful and big, and I think I’m getting there by being part of this program that is going to be so pivotal for not only the city of Chicago and its residents but which can potentially be used as a model to implement in other states and even countries,” she says.