For the past several years, while scientists and politicians have pondered and fought over how to curb the effects of climate change, you could have found Judy Kincaid in the living room of homes in Durham’s Watts-Hillandale neighborhood teaching people about solar hot water. Or knocking on doors in Northeast Central Durham looking for neighborhood leaders who want to help their community save energy and money in simple ways. Or training people to install programmable thermostats in the nearby homes of senior citizens.

As the executive director of Clean Energy Durham, Kincaid works to teach people on the most micro levelperson by person, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhoodabout sustainability and energy efficiency.

“People say this is a big problem and you’re doing little things, but we’re building community, not just teaching energy,” she says. “I can’t control the big picture, but I can in my own community.”

Kincaid is quick to credit environmental advocacy groups for pressing for reform. But unlike these groups, she says, “we try to focus on sustainability, regardless of politics. What we can agree on is saving money.”

Kincaid’s sparse office in the Snow Building in downtown Durham is the size of a large walk-in closet. Until August, she worked out of her home, pioneering a national model for energy education and building community in 15 neighborhoods, including Hope Valley, Watts-Hillandale, Northeast Central and Southwest Central Durham.

“From the beginning, my vision has been to have an effective and replicable model for the whole country,” she says. “I want Durham to get recognition for this program. We have so much to offer and made it a model for so many people working together.”

Northeast Central Durham is a low-income neighborhood trying to rebuild. Clean Energy Durham has trained 43 people there to help their neighbors with the most basic yet effective energy measures: weatherization, programmable thermostats, compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

In more affluent Watts-Hillandale, Kincaid inspired Mig Little Hayes to start the neighborhood energy sustainability group, Wattsbusters. “She’s a visionary,” Little Hayes says. “She builds bridges. She sees the small things that individuals and groups can do.”

Kincaid grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., one of the first communities in the U.S. to have an energy office. She graduated from law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., which had an institutional mission: law for social change. “I wanted to change the world,” she says.

In the summer of 1974, Kincaid, her future husband, Phil Lehman, decided to drive the mid-Atlantic states to hunt for a place to settle down. They piled into a 1969 Dodge Dart. Their first stop was Durham. It was also their last stop. “It was exciting,” Kincaid recalls. “Liggett & Myers and American Tobacco were in full swing. It was very much a working town, not a college town. There was a terrific combination of people who were doing interesting things. We said, ‘We love Durham, so let’s live here.’”

The following summer, Kincaid and Lehman (who now works for the N.C. attorney general’s consumer protection division, specializing in stopping predatory lenders) came to Durham without jobs. Eventually, Kincaid went to work for the N.C. Public Interest Research Group (NC PIRG), then directed by future Durham state Sen. Wib Gulley. Later she taught labor law at N.C. Central and worked for the N.C. Labor Law Center.

Over time, she started getting interested in environmental issues “because I had little kids.”

For the next 14 years, Kincaid worked at the Triangle J Council of Governments, which works across the region on various policy issues. There she concentrated on developing markets for recyclable materials.

“I learned there were the challenges getting people to work across jurisdictional boundaries,” she says, “and the pride people had in their own communities. I wanted to build this capacity in Durham, as opposed to working for governments.”

So five years ago she quit her job at Triangle J, she says, “to devote the rest of my career to Durham.”

“When I worked at Triangle J, I felt like a little potted plant in a closet. Now I feel like a plant growing and spreading in a garden,” she says.

Originally, she hoped to be the sustainability coordinator for Durhama position that then did not exist. (The city and county hired Tobin Freid to the newly created post in 2008.) But the in-the-trenches, neighborhood work appealed to her more.

Clean Energy Durham morphed from a local group that started during the Clinton administration’s Million Solar Roofs Initiative. In May 2007, 33 years after Kincaid’s fateful stop in the city, Clean Energy Durham became an official nonprofit.

Tony Brown met Kincaid when she enrolled in a social entrepreneurship workshop that he was leading at Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy. “We talked about, ‘How do you move from idea to compelling idea to implementation?’ Usually, ideas that are compelling start small,” says Brown, now president of the Robertson Scholars Program.

Brown has watched Kincaid and Clean Energy Durham develop into a solid, sustainable organization. “She has the power of the person and the power of the idea. I have great admiration for people who act on their ideas. She’s a great role model. She’s my hero.”

Kincaid, who credits Brown for “kicking me in the butt,” then coached, motivated and organized neighbors and reached out to groupsanyone who would listen to her passion for sustainability.

“I’ve learned from Judy not to give up and learned the power of persuasion,” Little Hayes of Wattsbusters says. “She’s a small woman with a very strong voice, but she’s not a whiner and she doesn’t put people on guilt trips. She keeps all the work in a very positive framework. People follow her lead.”

Kincaid’s theory of technology: Some undertakingslike installing solar panels or hot water heatersare best left to the professionals. But many small energy-saving jobs can be done by trained amateurs. A pivotal moment happened during a legislative committee, when a speaker from a state agency said the agency didn’t install programmable thermostats in the homes of senior citizens because they had problems using them. Kincaid knew these were the very people living on fixed incomes who needed those thermostats the most.

“They do have trouble,” Kincaid said. “But you don’t have to call tech support, you can call the guy down the street and they can go back three or four times and teach them. This made me realize the significance of the community aspect of what we do.”

The federal stimulus money that is being doled out to governments and their contractors has trickled down to Clean Energy Durham. On Nov. 16, City Council approved $314,700 for Clean Energy Durham for a new initiative to conduct community outreach and volunteer training for a home retrofitting and job training project. In January, the group will test an online energy tracker that allows Durham residents to compare energy usage to homes of similar type and occupancy across the city.

Clean Energy Durham’s success is inspiring other communities throughout the U.S. to call Kincaid for help in forming similar groups.

“The beauty is we are leaving behind sustainable neighborhoods that continue to help each other,” she says. “Nobody in the country is doing what we’re doing. We invented it, and that’s really, really exciting.”