This Earth Day, we take a moment to recognize that clean energy solutions can not only help save our planet from the devastation of extreme climate change, but also help save families from suffering due to high energy costs. Just this week, Memphis, TN was named one of the top 10 cities with the highest energy burden in the country in a new report, with Memphians spending an average of just over 6% of their income on energy bills. This percentage more than doubles for low-income families in Memphis, with those families paying over 13% of their income on utility bills – the highest in the country! Families with high energy burdens suffer significant negative health impacts and economic hardship. They face greater risks for respiratory diseases and increased stress, and too often have to choose between putting food on the table and keeping their lights on.
Coincidentally, the day before that report was released, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, in partnership with the Memphis Branch of the NAACP and Sierra Club, hosted a luncheon meeting at the Memphis Bioworks Foundation around our Just Energy Memphis project aimed at finding energy efficiency solutions to help ease low-income communities’ energy burdens.
The Just Energy Memphis meeting brought together leaders from county and city government, local service agencies, community development groups and Memphis Light, Gas, and Water staff to discuss how to work together to reduce high utility bills for low-income communities. This event was the first step in developing a city-wide coalition that can help educate and empower low-income communities and identify who is not being served by current bill pay assistance and weatherization programs.
On average, low-income households spend double the amount of their monthly income on utility bills, compared to a moderate-income household. This means that almost 44% of low-income households struggle with energy insecurity, where families are unable to meet basic household heating, cooling and energy needs. These high-energy costs can be caused by old, energy-intensive appliances like refrigerators, hot-water heaters and HVAC systems or by poor housing conditions, like insufficient insulation and leaky windows and doors.
Additionally, many Memphians are renters and are therefore unable to make necessary efficiency or building improvements that are traditionally undertaken by landlords. Studies have also found that living in homes that are not properly heated or cooled increases cases of asthma, respiratory problems, heart disease, arthritis, and rheumatism.
Although there are current MLGW programs and nonprofit bill-pay assistance programs in place to help reduce bills for these communities, many low-income customers cannot access these programs due to poor credit scores, economic status requirements for certain programs (e.g. must make less per year than a threshold amount) or other eligibility barriers. Funding for the programs that are currently available is often insufficient when compared to the overwhelming need for these services. Additionally, many homes need basic structural improvements that do not traditionally fall into the weatherization program areas.
Not only can energy efficiency improvements help families reduce needlessly high utility bills, it can also become an important job creator for these same communities. Memphis Bioworks Foundation is currently recruiting students for a fully-funded three-week commercial energy efficiency job training program that certifies each student as a professional commercial energy efficiency auditor.
The Just Energy Memphis partner groups are happy to see national groups like ACEEE highlighting the desperate need for energy efficiency solutions to the very real energy equity problems in Memphis. We will continue to work with these groups to determine how best to reduce utility bills in these communities and identify other leaders who can help bring these much needed resources to families throughout the city of Memphis.