Fighting climate change and heatstroke, one house at a time

A boy riding his bicycle in the Southwood Mobile Home Park in Charlottesville, Virginia

Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Rosemary Morris has lived in a mobile home in the Southwood neighborhood of Charlottesville, Virginia for the past three decades. Leaky roofs, problems with plumbing, and outdated and inefficient heating and cooling systems are commonplace here. Until recently Morris, a fixed-income septuagenarian, ran her heating and air conditioning unit 24/7, but it barely changed the temperature inside her home. Such life situations are not only costly, but can also be life threatening in extreme weather conditions.

Chris Meyer (second from left), Executive Director of the Local Energy Alliance (LEAP) program, with other staff

“The science is very simple: During episodes of extreme heat … air conditioning decreases emergency room visits and other complications and health costs that disproportionately affect low-income families,” says Chris Meyer, director executive of the Charlottesville-based Local Energy Alliance (LEAP) program, who worked with local Habitat for Humanity and other groups to perform energy audits and make efficiency improvements to homes in Southwood. “Suddenly residents are more comfortable in their homes, they are saving money on their monthly energy bills… and there is an added climate change benefit when we can switch devices to fossil fuels to electricity.

For the Morris house, LEAP made the necessary repairs last year. He sealed the spaces around the windows and baseboards, added insulation in the attic, and installed a new electric heat pump for more efficient heating and cooling. Unlike in previous years, Morris didn’t have to spend the summer sweating and immediately saw a drop in her monthly energy bills.

The process by which a heat pump works to heat a house

Cool the Commonwealth

Local The data shows that a quarter of low-income families in Richmond have an energy burden (or percentage of income spent on energy bills) above 16%. The loads are even higher among BIPOC residents, with 28 percent of black households and 24 percent of Latino households facing heavy energy loads. (According to the report, a high energy load is considered to be greater than 6 percent.)

Climate, health and equity issues are at the center of the NRDC Energy efficiency for all, a project that works with national, local and state partners to make affordable multi-family homes more energy and water efficient to help low-income communities of color tackle inclement weather and lower utility bills .

As the climate crisis progresses, energy efficient air conditioning is more important than ever for public health. In 2020, Virginia had one of its hottest summers on record and its second longest streak of temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded at Richmond International Airport.

Virginia residents cool off in the Rappahannock River in Fredricksburg, August 2021

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images

“In the Southeastern states, air conditioning is essential for maintaining a tolerable indoor living environment,” says Dan Farrell, associate director of the office of energy efficiency at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). “It’s not just a climate issue, it’s a cost issue. In homes with baseboard heaters and window air conditioners, installing a new heat pump can heat and cool much more efficiently and reduce costs.

Despite the health, financial and climate change benefits that come with things like insulating water heater tanks, sealing air leaks, and fixing leaking windows and doors, such weatherization upgrades are often too expensive for low-income homeowners. Federal funding to tackle these kinds of projects is available through the US Department of Energy. Weatherization assistance program (WAP), but funds are limited and the rules are strict.

“At the level of individual owners across the Commonwealth, it is not for lack of desire or interest that this work is not being done; it’s because people can’t afford it, ”explains Sunshine Mathon, executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, an affordable housing nonprofit based in Charlottesville. “As a nation, we have a 40-year backlog of reparations due to chronic underfunding,” he said of the federal program. Clients are reluctant to put their names on long waiting lists so that they can get help in the distant future. “When you reach out and hear ‘we can’t reach you for three years’ there is also a certain skepticism and disillusionment,” Mathon continues.

Fortunately, the funds offered by the Regional greenhouse gas initiative (RGGI) are starting to help. The effort sets regional limits on carbon pollution through a cap-and-trade agreement in which power plants can buy, sell or trade carbon permits in quarterly auctions. RGGI then invests the income generated in energy efficiency projects.

The initiative currently includes 11 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. Since RGGI’s inception in 2009, participating states have halved carbon emissions and helped consumers save $ 773 million in energy costs. When Virginia signed in January, it became the first state in the Southeast to implement a statewide policy to reduce its carbon footprint.

Dominion Power Station in Yorktown, Virginia

Carmen Shields via Flickr, CC BY-4.0

Maintenance makes the difference

In March, the DHCD received $ 21.7 million in revenue of an RGGI auction and an additional $ 22.6 million in June. According to Farrell, 100 percent of the funds have already been allocated.

“The demand is great,” he says, estimating that structural repairs to 300 single-family and 600 multi-family units across Virginia would require about $ 13 million in RGGI funds in the first year alone.

One of the main goals of RGGI funding, Farrell continues, is to provide repairs – and relief – to Virginians with “deferrals” on their properties that have kept repairs from weathering for many years.

The federal WAP places strict limits on the repairs that can be done with its funding. For example, the program does not fund work on structural issues, such as roof repairs, which must be done before weatherization work begins. Thus, homes that need these kinds of upgrades are postponed until other sources of funding can be identified to carry out the repairs.

In 2019, Community housing partners (CHP), the state’s largest weatherization provider, recorded 525 deferrals. According to CHP Vice President Mark Jackson, handling these projects with RGGI funds is a top priority. “We need RGGI funds to unlock these homes so that they are ready to be weatherproof so that we can use federal funding and utility funding,” he said.

All Community Housing Partners (CHP) energy efficiency projects begin with a comprehensive home energy and safety inspection or audit.

Courtesy of Community Housing Partners

In Charlottesville, $ 1.5 million in RGGI funds has already been spent to increase energy efficiency in affordable housing. Friendship Court, a Section 8 community with 150 homes, is undergoing a four-phase redevelopment project that includes the installation of energy-efficient heat pumps, adequate insulation, and new ductless dryers to improve air circulation. air in the house.

“What RGGI dollars are doing, in a really powerful way … is providing guaranteed financing at unprecedented levels,” says Mathon, adding that weather protection providers are using RGGI funds to hire. staff, increase their efforts and reach those who did not benefit. programs in the past. He estimates that 80 percent of the properties his group manages could benefit from weatherization work. Going forward, he hopes to combine federal WAP and RGGI funds to tackle the problem and help make these homes healthier, safer and more comfortable for the residents, like Morris, who live there.


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