August 16, 2022

‘For Some Energy Efficiency Is The Difference Between Keeping Facilities Open or Shut Down’

Energy efficiency upgrades often involve expensive solutions such as updating windows and replacing gas-fired ovens. But if we are to tackle the climate crisis in a big way, everyone, including low-income and Black households, should have access to these upgrades.

Sharonda Williams-TackAs leader of the Sierra Club’s Healthy Communities Campaign, she aims to help distressed households lower their electricity bills through energy efficiency improvements that can protect the planet and people’s lives. Alongside allied groups, including Earthjustice, the campaign recently made a big hit in Michigan. There, legal agreements have forced energy utilities to target efficiency upgrade plans in places like Flint, Michigan, where energy costs can be almost 20 percent of a household’s income.

Why improve energy efficiency in individual households?

When the percentage of your household income that goes to your energy bill is more than 6 percent, your household has only bleeding energy.

It’s not just about turning off my lights a little bit more or making sure my fridge is completely off. There are people who live in houses with leaky roofs, poorly insulated windows, appliances that are ten years old, and waste their energy doing nothing really. And even though they live in a one-bedroom apartment, they have an energy bill of $600 a month so they are wrapped in blankets in the winter.

For some, energy efficiency is the difference between keeping utilities open or shutting them down. That month she has to make decisions about what to feed her children and wonder if her children will be taken away because their electricity will be cut off.

A house in northwest Washington, DC, where residents use cardboard and other things as a temporary window to keep the elements from getting in.

A house in northwest Washington, DC, where residents use cardboard and other things as a temporary window to keep the elements from getting in.

Melissa Lyttle for world justice

How can we reduce high energy loads?

Many existing programs for energy efficiency upgrades are not accessible to low-income families and are not really targeted. Much of what we’ve done in Michigan over the past five years is working with utilities to identify customers with high utility debt, at risk of closure, and then giving those people access to free energy efficiency. upgrades. These include replacing non-energy efficient appliances, replacing water heaters, sealing windows, improving insulation, and finding ways to provide health and safety measures to homes.

What is its connection to health and safety?

For many people suffering from high energy loads, their homes are not safe. It has problems with mold, lead, and asbestos, as well as indoor air quality issues. We want to enter these homes with funding to make health and safety repairs and improve air quality. Many homes with asbestos, mold and lead are not suitable for energy efficiency renovations, so we need to get around these barriers first.

You also see mental health issues as people deal with the constant struggle of paying their energy bills each month. Debt is rising, late fees are rising, if the connection goes down they have to pay a reconnection fee. “Am I just feeding this month, not myself?” they have to ask. It just makes people weak.

How energy upgrades can bring jobs to the community

Communities that are often overburdened have a large amount of neglected homes. Some states (PA, CT, MI) are working to pass bills and allocate state budget dollars to fund health and safety repairs. There is a great opportunity to grow a fair clean energy workforce that includes people living in these communities and suffering from high poverty rates.

What is it like to collaborate with Earthjustice?

Earthjustice has superstar lawyers. We couldn’t do this job without world justice. They became our brains. There is the legal, technical part of the job; there is an economic component to this business; There is also data analysis. Earthjustice has played a key role in advocating and designing better programs in Michigan. It was a wonderful pairing.

What is the most effective part of this project?

Two years ago, when we asked Michigan government agencies to make geotargeted programs, it was time we got clear about the link to race. When you look at census areas that are predominantly Black, you see the highest energy load here. It’s really important to be able to discuss it and name it with utilities.

After our legal agreement with Earthjustice, we had one of our first meetings with the utility to figure out exactly where to target their investments, and they had their consultants redraw data on where they saw the current energy load. I know the company wouldn’t consider doing that without emphasizing the importance of talking about race and energy load. I’m really proud of that and I hope we can model this and continue these conversations.

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