This blog is the third in a series SACE is publishing on recent energy efficiency advocacy meetings between Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and community members across the Tennessee Valley. The first blog, focusing on TVA customers in rural East Tennessee, can be found here, and the second blog, focusing on customers in Memphis, can be found here.
Should anyone in the Tennessee Valley have to choose between taking their child to the doctor or keeping their lights on? Today, too many people in Chattanooga and across the Tennessee Valley do just that because of high energy costs. Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) is on the cutting edge as a TVA distributor, having set the bar for smart grid investments in the region and recently implemented a whole-home retrofit pilot program in the predominately African American, low-income Avondale neighborhood. There are still many more Chattanoogans with unnecessarily high electric bills, however, and EPB and other local power companies desperately need support from TVA to tap into valuable utility system savings and help customers get their bills to a more affordable level.
On August 15, a group of low-income, minority Chattanoogans met with TVA staff to share their thoughts about obstacles to making their homes more energy efficient and lowering their energy burdens and to ask TVA for their help in overcoming them.
The message that was delivered loud and clear at the meeting was that reaching and engaging members of diverse, low-income communities in energy efficiency efforts requires trust-building. And building trust takes time. Chattanooga residents who participated in the meeting shared personal stories that highlighted a multitude of obstacles to making the homes of low-income families energy efficient.
Like the rest of Tennessee, the percentage of people who live below the poverty line in Chattanooga is astoundingly high – 25 percent of Chattanoogans are low-income and close to 40 percent of Chattanooga households belong to minority communities. Most of them live in inefficient housing and have a high energy burden compared to higher-income residents.
Energy burden is the percentage of household income spent on home energy bills. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has found that low-income minority households across the country spend more of their income on home energy costs than the average household. Families with high energy burdens often suffer long-term health impacts and have a harder time escaping poverty than other households.
The Southeast leads the nation in poverty and lags behind the rest of the nation in the deployment of energy efficiency and the realization of associated benefits. Per capita spending on energy efficiency programs in Tennessee is well below the national average. TN ranks 25/51 on ACEEE’s 2016 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard. While TVA does offer some energy efficiency programs, they are smaller than many other utilities’ programs, and low-income households are often unable to access them due to a lack of access to capital and other barriers.
Fortunately, TVA is looking at options for addressing energy burdens across the Valley.
Local Chattanooga nonprofit green|spaces worked for over a year to build trust with community members to provide them with an opportunity to speak for themselves at meetings like this one. When SACE began helping to organize community meetings with TVA across the Valley, local advocates were eager and up for the task in Chattanooga.
Community members who attended the meeting talked about a variety of obstacles that they and other Chattanoogans experience around making their homes more energy efficient and lowering their energy burden. “Fear and lacking” sum them up: lack of trust in utilities and other authorities, lack of access to information and programs, lack of money, lack of education, lack of communication, lack of accountable and ethical landlords, lack of time, lack of well-designed programs, lack of insulation, lack of sealed doors and windows, and lack of well-built homes, to name a few.
Some community members spoke of homes that are so deteriorated that they fear that they will be condemned if they call attention to them, and told stories of friends who had experienced just that. Experiences like these can help to inform the design of new energy efficiency programs on obstacles that planners might not otherwise know about.
In the end, one participant recapped and asked TVA for help: “We live in old houses, we’re low income, and we need help. TVA needs to do a massive overhaul – if you’re going to do something, it needs to be something big.”
Addressing the challenges highlighted by the stories shared at the Chattanooga meeting is complex and requires commitment and leadership. TVA has convened an Energy Efficiency Information Exchange working group that includes staff from TVA, local power companies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, including SACE and green|spaces, and others to work together to solve the problem of high energy burdens. SACE looks forward to continuing to engage through the working group, and we will be working to emphasize the concerns and insights provided by community members across the Valley in our ongoing efforts.