Leaky furnaces, exposed wires, and faulty vents: Efficiency in low-income homes offers safety and savings

A network of programs is reducing energy poverty — and consumption

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

When Diana Story, a grandmother who lives in the Maple Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, wanted to lower her energy bills and fix any problems in the 55-year-old single-family house she shares with four other people, a neighbor suggested she check out the energy efficiency program at Chicago’s Micro Market Recovery Program.

In doing so, Story became part of a growing, nationwide movement of grassroots energy efficiency programs.

“I had no idea we had places like [this] for people with low incomes who can’t afford to get work done,” Story said. “They’re really serving and helping people.’’

MMRP specifically targets neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates to help residents stay in their homes. The efficiency program helps people find ways to make their homes more energy efficient, thus cutting their utility bills.

The city partnered with Elevate Energy, a Chicago-based consumer energy advocacy organization whose programs promote sustainability and renewable energy. It is one of numerous similar organizations across the country that are working with states, municipalities, banks, utility companies, nonprofits, contractors, and others to encourage and enable people to become more energy efficient, especially in low-income communities where energy often poses a disproportionate financial burden.

“We want to make sure that as a society that we are making investments in a clean energy economy, and that everyone benefits, low-income communities especially”

Many also organize neighborhood projects that invest in local clean renewable energy, such as community solar, to lessen dependence on fossil fuel-burning power plants.

Percent of household income spent on electricity by annual household income after taxes. Source: Groundswell
Percent of household income spent on electricity by annual household income after taxes. Source: Groundswell

The concept of energy efficiency came to public attention in the 1970s when oil was expensive and gas was short. Long lines began forming at gas stations, and utility companies began to recognize the value of energy conservation programs.

But energy efficiency programs have assumed a new urgency with the growing climate crisis. Even the federal government — recognizing the potential impact of local initiatives — has gotten involved, providing $3.2 billion in block grants in the 2009 stimulus package for states and cities to support energy efficiency programs. These block grants worked, producing solid energy savings, according to a study released last year by the Department of Energy. For every dollar spent, there was an estimated $1.76 in energy savings. Moreover, the grants will provide cumulative lifetime savings of $5.2 billion.

Today, groups like Elevate Energy design and implement energy savings programs for low-income individuals, as well for non-profits, building owners, and business. They serve as navigators, negotiators, and advisors throughout the often difficult, cumbersome — and sometimes expensive — process.

Elevate Energy assessed Story’s house and found it needed sealant and insulation in the attic, basement, and perimeter walls. Water seeped into the basement after every heavy rain. In addition, Story’s furnace was emitting high levels of potentially deadly carbon monoxide because of faulty ventilation, and the house had exposed electrical connections, putting the family at risk for shock or fire. The clothes dryer lacked proper ventilation, another fire hazard.

Diana Story’s home in West Pullman. Source: Elevate Energy
Diana Story’s home in West Pullman. Source: Elevate Energy

Elevate Energy worked with Story, an efficiency contractor, and a water-sealing company to coordinate nearly $8,000 in improvements that were financed by an MMRP forgivable loan, serviced by Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, and made possible by a federal community development block grant. As long as Story and her family remain in the home for four years, they won’t have to pay back the loan — and the retrofitting likely will save Story about $400 annually in natural gas costs.

“We want to make sure that as a society that we are making investments in a clean energy economy, and that everyone benefits, low-income communities especially,’’ said Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy. “There are energy efficiency programs out there, but they are not reaching everybody.’’

The group focuses most of its efforts on reducing costs for low-income consumers, including tenants in apartments or single-family houses, and works with certified contractors, utility companies, banks, and government agencies to ensure that the improvements are sound and affordable.

“We cobble it all together to make it work for low-income families,’’ Evens said.

Elevate Energy “has retrofitted more than 20,000 units of affordable, multi-family housing in the Chicago area since 2007, which is pretty exceptional,’’ said Jessica Collingsworth, the Midwest energy policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Elevate Energy also works with non-profit and social service community organizations to help them reduce their energy load.

For example, the group recently helped the Little City Foundation cut its yearly electricity bill by more than $36,000. Little City, which provides learning, work, health, and residential opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, operates a 22-building campus in Palatine, Ill. The organization reduced its annual electricity consumption by 360,536 kilowatt hours after implementing improvements proposed by Elevate Energy, which conducted a free assessment. Moreover, incentives from the utility company, ComEd, reduced the initial cost of the improvements, $82,829, by nearly a third.

Making these improvements “has the potential to save us tens of thousands of dollars each year…that we can use to continue and improve upon the programming and supportive services we offer clients and their families,’’ said Shawn Jeffers, Little City’s executive director.

To help consumers take advantage of off-peak energy pricing, the organization also sponsors hourly pricing programs that advise consumers on money-saving tips. “When there’s a lot of demand, prices are higher, and it’s the same in the electricity market,’’ Evens said. “We have about 22,000 families signed up, and they collectively saved $25 million by changing their behaviors to shift consumption to off peak.’’

Typically, the hours of highest electricity demand occur between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Cooperating with several utility companies in the state, Elevate Energy has “helped people understand how to effectively manage their electricity use and save money,’’ Evens said.

Source: Opower
Source: Opower

This means, for example, setting the dishwasher timer to start running at 8 p.m., rather than earlier, or doing laundry after 7 p.m., or unplugging appliances that aren’t in use. Also, smart power strips — unlike traditional ones — will halt power to products that go into standby mode, saving energy and money.

Since prices are usually lower in the morning, “pre-cool your house in the summer,’’ Evens said. “Run the air conditioner in the morning, when prices are lower. Then, when prices start to go up at 3 p.m., you can shut off your air conditioner because you’ve already cooled your house,’’ which should stay cool during the most expensive time period. “These families are innovating all the time and coming up with new ways to save during high peak times,’’ she said.

Although Elevate Energy began in Illinois, it now collaborates with groups in several other states, including Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin, to help them set up similar programs.

Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell, a Washington-based organization that focuses on clean energy and energy equity issues, calls Elevate Energy a model for the energy efficient movement.

“Its pioneering work, such as [its] leadership in retrofitting multifamily affordable housing, is a source of inspiration and practical examples for other organizations working at the intersection of economic equity, social justice and clean energy,’’ Moore said.

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art, and culture.