Solving Energy Poverty: Energy Efficient Homes for Those Who Need Them Most

Finding ways to make housing affordable has troubled society for decades. Lack of affordable housing is linked to a host of social issues, including underemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence, and poor health. Affordability is defined as spending no more than 30% of monthly household income on rent or mortgage payments. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “40.9 million American households (35.3 percent) are cost burdened, including 19.8 million (17.1 percent) with severe burdens, meaning they spend over half of their income for housing.” Spending so much on rent leaves little for life’s necessities, like food, clothing, education, healthcare, electricity and other utilities.

Paying the rent or a mortgage is far from being a family’s only expense. Just because their income is low doesn’t mean it costs any less to keep the milk refrigerated, fend off the cold of winter or keep the water running. Energy costs the same for everyone, making the energy burden up to three times heavier for low-income families than families with higher monthly incomes, resulting in what is called “energy poverty’. Energy poverty is determined by the percentage of income that a household spends on energy. While an average family may spend about 3 percent of their income on energy, low-income families may spend more than 20 percent of their income on energy expenses.

Energy poverty makes housing even more unaffordable. So one way to address the problem is to reduce some of the fastest rising costs to occupants – energy and water expenses – thus reducing the toll that energy poverty takes on low-income families. Many energy utilities already address affordability through assistance programs that pay a portion of customer’s bills when customers can’t cover the cost themselves. While financial assistance with bills is a short-term fix, it does little to solve the long-term underlying problem.

Addressing high utility costs by reducing the staggering amount of energy and water waste that occurs in many low-income homes is an essential part of fixing this serious societal problem. There are income-qualified weatherization programs in virtually every community whose goal is to tighten up the homes of those who can’t otherwise afford it. These are operated by energy utilities, native nations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Weatherization assistance programs install energy conservation measures such as insulation, air sealing, low-flow showerheads, LED lights, etc. These programs are often constrained by inadequate budgets and narrow definitions of cost effectiveness. While they certainly help, these efforts often fall far short of the ideal. There are isolated cases of extensive weatherization, sometimes called “deep energy retrofits”, that bring energy use to extremely low levels. Unfortunately, deep energy retrofit programs for low-income homes are usually limited to demonstrations and not widely available.

Another approach is to reduce energy costs by adding solar (photovoltaic) panels. Solar panels are becoming part of the efficiency package in working class neighborhoods around the country. These efforts are often coupled with previous weatherization work. In order to further improve economic prosperity for low-income families, one California-based nonprofit adds job-training to the mix. GRID Alternatives installs solar energy systems in underserved communities while preparing workers for family-wage jobs in the clean energy industry. They have installed more than 9,000 photovoltaic systems and trained nearly 35,000 people.

While all of these efforts do contribute to the overall solution of the problem of energy poverty in some way, they also all miss a huge opportunity. Funding and implementation are fragmented across many organizations. Efficiency measures are implemented piecemeal. It’s a rearguard action that succeeds only to address the biggest needs and fails to reach the level of efficiency demanded by the current climate crisis. Limited funds and insurmountable backlogs lead to a form of housing triage by treating only the worst cases. It’s a poor investment of public resources.

Currently, a great deal of funding is going towards patching substandard homes or paying high utility bills, or both. There is a better way. These funds could be repurposed to systematically weatherize the existing good quality apartment house and home stock using programs such as EnergiSprong for apartments and deep energy retrofits for stand alone homes. Approaching energy retrofitting in this systematic way will be far more cost effective for society and more dignified for the occupants of these homes and apartments than the current piecemeal approach.
And rather than attempting to weatherize unfixable homes, combining funds currently directed towards utility bill assistance, repair and weatherization of existing homes and apartments with the funds for incentivizing new construction would support the replacement of older, deteriorating homes with brand new homes that are healthier and more energy efficient – an approach we discuss in Part II: Don’t Repair, Replace! Bring Zero Energy Homes to Those that Need T....

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Comment by David Eakin on March 16, 2018 at 6:10pm

Most all residential buildings are built with a 50-year life cycle. If the building stock in question is at that point, or past, then tear down and rebuild is the better option than deep energy retrofit. Low-income housing can be both energy efficient and affordable - if it is built that way and if the size of the apartments is smaller (to provide an incentive to investors). No such thing as a free lunch, and trying to select which old house to dump $20k-@30K into for a DER is too little, too late.

Comment by Jose Macho on March 14, 2018 at 3:47pm

There is no one-size-fits all answer...It would be interesting to see some real data on low income population in homes or rental apartments- either subsidized or private. I do know that much of the public housing sector both DOE and Agencies maintain data to measure effectiveness of any energy /weatherization expenditures. Most of the CAP Agencies using a software program like NEAT to determine what measures are cost effective on that particular property. But to some of the issues you failed to discuss.

Yes, much of the work is a band aid, and both DOE and separate utility or state programs seem to be out of sync with soooo much money thrown at ineffective policies and work scope. But it is a major challenge. You fail to mention the many barriers presented with older homes;  in the Northeast as an example- 100 year old inner city balloon-framed triple deckers with asbestos steam pipe/duct wrap, asbestos siding, mold issues,etc. All that nasty stuff that needs expensive remediation before you can even think about tightening up that drafty apartment. And we haven't discussed the basement heating appliances yet... Teardowns happen with public housing simply because the taxpayers pay for it... The real world of Section 8 or subsidized private apartments with absentee landlords present a far more difficult environment where I would argue many of the low income live because of long waiting lists to get into something better.

Solar? some private low income homeowners do it with Power Purchase Agreements with $0. down and added to that payment is the needed new roof and sometimes structural upgrades to support the roof panels. Multifamily?? The laws in most states (with great utility political lobbying) prohibit virtual metering, preventing tenants from "sharing" power generated from the common roof panels. We don't have the money to simply bulldoze under-served communities with new energy efficient housing. And as many of us painfully know, state and federal funding continues to decline each year.

Comment by Barbara Smith on March 12, 2018 at 10:56am

The depth of the housing crisis demands that we work on all fronts at once. This article needs more numbers to describe our housing stock credibly. Also: don't dismiss the value of what's happening now in weatherization. For example, where is the author's evidence that weatherization funds are going into "unfixable" homes? If you plan to withdraw bill-paying assistance, better show rock-solid proof you won't leave those families high and dry while you get their new homes built. Too many times these arguments have been used to bolster new policies to move families from substandard housing to something better, yet the end result was leaving those families even more vulnerable than before, or even homeless. We must avoid these mistakes going forward. Most energy saving potential is in existing buildings, not new construction -- isn't that widely agreed? Talk to us about where the *new* funding sources will come from. I would welcome that conversation. 

Comment by Brett Little on March 12, 2018 at 10:12am

Greenhomes for all! Great thoughts. Check out what we are doing in GR

Comment by Bill Melendez on March 12, 2018 at 10:09am

We seem to not focus on consumer behaviors that cause energy poverty. The solution, in addition to what was mentioned above is to control how energy is used within low income (and high income) homes through the use of technology such as smart sockets (plugs or AC outlet monitors) that can turn things off when not needed. My own experiences in dealing with these issues (as growing up in a low income home) has to do with the lack of understanding of energy usage and the idea that someone else will pay for the wasted energy. Any asistance program needs to require some sort of accountaility and education to wean recipients off the program in the first place. Government assistance never solved the problem --since people become accustomed to the support. Implementing smart sockets that can intelligently address energy habits compensates for such behavior while not being intrusive to the way people live. It can gradually increase the tenant's self reliance needed for behavior modification. HEMS Technology has a goal of implementing technology to provide energy management down to the lowest levels of income so as to alleviate the waste of energy.

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