Supporting Lower Bills and Weatherization is in Sync with Austin’s Progressive Values

Guest Post – from Cyrus Reed and Dave Cortez of the Sierra Club

In a city as expensive and economically segregated as Austin, an increase or decrease in your utility bill can make all the difference. It can force choices between medicine and groceries versus paying your bill. Or if you’re like us, it can be something you barely notice because you have the means to pay your bills every month.

In response to calls from our national board leaders and environmental justice leaders like Dr. Robert Bullard and Van Jones, the Sierra Club team in Austin is making big shifts in how we advocate for progressive policies. We’re changing how we work to prioritize the voices, concerns, and ideas of working class and marginalized communities concerned about pollution, poverty, and high bills.

For months, residents struggling to stay in their homes have told us they would like to receive upgraded insulation, windows, weather stripping, and hvac systems. We’ve conducted community forums alongside low-income residents to gather ideas about how programs like weatherization and the Customer Assistance Program could be improved. And with the ongoing debate about the City of Austin’s budget for 2016, we’ve worked together to push hard for the demands we’ve heard on the streets: more weatherization, better programs.

Austin Energy, through its ratepayers, supports a variety of programs designed generally to reduce overall and peak energy use. Supported mainly through the Energy Efficiency Service Fee that is assessed on most customers based on their energy use, the fund generates between $35 and $40 million per year. It includes commercial rebate programs, multifamily rebate programs for the building owners, greenbuilding programs, demand response programs to shift peak use, solar rebates and incentives, and one specific program designed to help low-income residents known as “free” weatherization.

All the programs provide some benefit to all ratepayers since they reduce energy use, prevent the need to run dirty power plants, reduce stress on transmission lines, and help meet Austin Energy’s peak demand reduction goal of reducing at least 900 MWs of load between 2007 and 2025, and achieving 200 MWs of local solar generation. These are shared goals of the community and the utility that have been approved by council.

Out of all these programs, it is the low-income weatherization program that has often received the most focus and most criticism. Why? It has become increasingly expensive.  Austin Energy was spending roughly $1300 per home and weatherized about 8,800 homes between 1996 and 2009. With the availability of free federal money through the American Repair and Recovery Act (Stimulus act), the measures – including HVAC replacement, refrigerators and home repair – and the costs per home more than tripled, and roughly $4300 was spent per home with about 800 homes weatherized per year.

The peak energy savings and overall energy savings were relatively low, and even when spending more than $5 million in 2011, only 1 MW of peak demand was saved that year. Even after the ARRA program ended, Austin Energy continued the measures covered and costs averaged more than $5,167 per home in FY 2013 and FY 2014, while only weatherizing 430 homes. In essence, the expenses rose and the number of homes – and energy savings per home – dwindled.

In FY 2015, some of the measures were discontinued and 531 homes have been weatherized at a cost of roughly $4000 per home, in the process spending $2.1 million ofratepayer money. A better result, but still falling short of expectations.

So why spend more when the program has been high cost, saved little energy, and served relatively few low-income persons? Because we can and must do better.

Low-income residents of Austin pay the EES fee that helps generate roughly $40 million per year. While coming up with estimates is difficult, the Low-Income Consumer Task Forceestimates that all low and low-to-moderate income residents (those at 400 percent or less of the federal poverty line) in Austin generate up to $10 million per year, and yet thus far only about $1.3 million from the EES – augmented by another $1 million from another pot of the money known as the Consumer Assistance Program – has been budgeted for  the specific project aimed at helping these ratepayers.

The Sierra Club believes that establishing a budget of roughly $4 million per year – which is 10% of the total demand side budget – would ensure that at least 1000 homes and at least 1 MW of demand would be reduced from that program every year. Over time, as new pilot programs and economies of scale improve, we anticipate we could nearly double the number of homes served by the same budget as we work toward spending roughly $2500 per home.

In fact, the Low-Income Consumer Task Force has come up with a variety of program ideas:

  • Unlike the ARRA program which virtually guaranteed HVAC replacement for any older system, we recommend focusing mainly on window AC units for families in need, and only replacing HVAC when certain tough criteria are met.
  • A pilot project modeled on some work currently being done in the Holly Street neighborhood where a voucher or rebate system would be used with contractors and supported by much greater coordination between Neighborhood Housing and Austin Energy.
  • Bulk purchasing for AC window units, and potentially other measures covered by the program, including LED lighting, insulation and solar screens.
  • We can and must think about a more “neighborhood-by-neighborhood” approach where we take advantage of similar housing stock being weatherized one street at a time.
  • For certain populations, new financing arrangements like on-bill repayment and low-interest loans can be implemented so we could combine rebates on certain energy efficient appliances with a loan that would be paid back with the savings from the bill.

Low-Income Weatherization is not the only program serving those who could most use the help lowering their monthly energy bill. The Multifamily Program – rebates offered to apartment owners to make their units more energy efficient – has been cost-effective for many years in improving apartment performance. Nonetheless, while many of the units served have helped lower bills of working Austinites, there has not been a focus particularly on apartment buildings housing the working poor. While Sierra Club is not opposed to helping apartment building owners that house richer folks – like some rebates that recently went to Steiner Ranch – it is unfortunate that there has not been a focus on buildings that house so many working class Austinites, especially in areas with high rates of utility bill debt.

This should change. Austin Energy should partner with HUD and reach out to apartment owners housing Section 8 and zip codes where populations are struggling with high utility bills. We believe that at least half of the Multifamily Energy Efficiency Budget should be allocated to buildings that help our neighbors most impacted by Austin’s lack of affordability.

It is also critical that more be done to invest in consumer education. Many of us have that family member or roommate who loves to leave every light on while doing the laundry during the hottest part of the day. Working class families are no different, and for policy advocates to suggest we cut funding because energy usage goes up after weatherization is a policy that is short sighted and lacking in Austin’s creative spirit toward resolving problems. More must be done to invest in promotoras, community workers, nonprofits, and churches so that better information about conservation and bill reduction reaches the people who stand to benefit the most.

By expanding – and improving – the weatherization program to roughly $4 million per year and expanding and focusing the Multifamily Program and its roughly $2 million budget on the apartments housing the working poor, Austin Energy could help more families get out of debt, pay their bills, reduce energy use, reduce emissions from power plants and help us meet our climate and energy efficiency goals.

What you can do:

Austin City Council will be voting on this issue in the next week or so, if you would like your voice to be heard, send an email to city council using this link and ask them to do the following:

  • Spend the money allocated to weatherization in previous year budgets in FY 2016 by rolling-it over to next year’s budget
  • Increase weatherization funding by $1.5 million in FY 2016 and Multifamily programs by $500,000.

Cyrus Reed is the Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Dave Cortez is the Senior Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club in Texas.

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