Utility efficiency initiatives may not be the best bang-for-your-buck climate solution. But they advance equity in the bargain.
For years, Chattanooga-based nonprofit green|spaces has taught locals how to improve household energy efficiency with simple, DIY fixes. On average, participants in the nonprofit’s Empower Program reduce their utility bill by 5% — and cut their carbon emissions, too.
Household energy consumption accounts for about 20% of emissions in the US. But that’s not the only reason to pursue energy efficiency programs. Nearly a third of US households struggle to pay their utility bills — and that number is even higher for Black and Brown households.
“You really have to balance the social outcomes with the environmental outcomes,” says green|spaces Executive Director Michael Walton. In Chattanooga, a city with an impressive environmental track record — and high inequality, the Empower utility efficiency program is one way to improve that balance.
Utility Burden Highlights Inequality
In the past ten years, Chattanooga has changed. Carbon emissions dropped 25% while GDP increased nearly $10 billion. New, carbon-neutral houses sell for $370,000, well over the average sale price for a home in the city. Its fast internet, natural beauty, and hybrid public transportation all bolster its image as the growing, green city of the future.
But the benefits haven’t been equally distributed. Despite growth, Chattanooga is a city of deep racial and income inequality.
For every household earning over $200,000 per year, there are over 20 earning less than $50,000, reflecting deeper inequality than 88% of major metropolitan areas. Rent is rising at one of the fastest rates in the country — 15% since 2019 — fueling an affordable housing crisis. In 2017, the average White household income was $56,000. Income for the average Black household was $26,000.
And residents struggle to pay their utility bills. Local providers just lifted a moratorium on service cutoffs, leaving the 13.3% of Chattanoogans who are unemployed vulnerable.
Nationwide, the energy burden for low-income households is 8.6%, nearly three times the burden for middle- and high-income households.
People who earn lower incomes are more likely to live in inefficient housing. A cracked window, uninsulated plumbing system, or gap under the front door can all increase utility bills. And broken heating or air conditioning systems can force people to turn to unsafe, costly workarounds, like using gas ovens for warmth.
Chattanooga is no exception. Many homes in low-income or formerly redlined neighborhoods are old buildings lacking insulation, leading to high utility bills.
This state of affairs costs families and the climate.
“What Would You Do With An Extra $74 Per Year?”
green|spaces is working to change that with the Empower Chattanooga program. “We educate people on things that they can do at home that are low or no cost,” says Ella Kliger, who leads Empower workshops in the counties surrounding Chattanooga.
Through the workshop series — moved to Zoom during the pandemic — green|spaces provides the supplies and training necessary for people to insulate their windows, caulk gaps in their walls and plumbing, and even add a foam layer to outlet covers. These simple, DIY fixes keep houses warmer in winter and cooler in the summer. When combined with behavior adjustments like drying clothes on a line instead of a dryer, that can significantly cut household utility bills.
The average Empower program participant cuts their utility spending by 5%, or $74 per year. For some, the difference is more dramatic. After Catherine, a resident of a rural county near Chattanooga, participated in Empower, her July utility bill dropped by a full $80 from the previous year.
“We were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, and now it’s like we’re human again,” Catherine told green|spaces.
High equity, low return-on-investment?
Utility efficiency programs seem like a win-win. Low-income households can improve their living space and save money. That savings comes with a reduction in household emissions.
green|spaces isn’t alone in focusing efforts on cutting low-income household energy use. The Federal Weatherization Assistance Program has offered funding for energy efficient home improvement for decades.
There’s one fly in the ointment: low-income utility efficiency programs may not make the most impact per dollar on greenhouse gas emissions.
A comprehensive study of utility efficiency programs showed low-income programs are significantly more expensive than standard residential or industrial utility efficiency programs. It cost an average of 18¢ to save one therm of natural gas in the industrial sector, 43¢ for middle- and high-income households, and $1.47 in low-income households.
As Dr. Schiller, a co-author on the study, explained to Energy News, it’s difficult to capture the full benefits of low-income utility programs in an economic analysis. “If you are reducing the cost then you increase the likelihood someone will be able to maintain their service. It’s expensive to disconnect someone’s service and then reconnect them.”
Schiller and his team are working on alternative ways to measure the benefits of these programs.
For now, nonprofits look beyond efficiency in pursuing low-income utility programs.
“There is an unfortunate push and pull in this conversation between the pure environmental outcomes and the blended environmental and social outcomes,” says Michael Walton. “We really try to focus on those blended outcomes rather than the pure ones.”
Gabrielle Chevalier, “green|spaces reflects on Energy Efficiency Day 2020: Where has Chattanooga succeeded & where do we have work to do?”, press release, Oct 5, 2020
Michael Walton and Gabrielle Chevalier, Zoom interview with Ciara McLaren, Jul 15, 2020
Ella Kliger, Zoom interview with Ciara McLaren, Nov 2, 2020
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