Electric meters. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

By Chris Meyer and Dawone Robinson

Even before 2020’s economic crisis, many vulnerable Virginians, particularly Black and Latino households, were paying more of their income on their energy bills.  

Thankfully, innovative relief from that “energy burden” is on the way.

It comes courtesy of this year’s Clean Energy and Flood Preparedness Act, which directs  funding from the carbon pollution cap-and-invest program known as RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) into low-income energy efficiency programs that reduce  electric bills for low-income households. It will generate an estimated $50 million annually for commonsense investments of this kind, to improve heating and cooling, insulation, and lighting in the homes of our fellow Virginians who need it the most. 

This is a historic opportunity: Excessive, relentless energy costs are real for those with lower incomes, given that electric bills statewide are the nation’s sixth highest and rising fast. This imposes an especially acute burden for our low-income neighbors, where dollars spent on high-cost necessities to keep the lights on and the home heated are often diverted from essentials like medicine, food, clothes or school needs.

That inequity is why the 2020 General Assembly passed the Clean Energy and Flood Preparedness Act, to direct the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to administer these programs supporting energy efficiency assistance for low-income residents. This offers a valuable new tool for historically underserved buildings like public housing, apartment complexes and rental homes. 

As the process ramps up despite COVID-19 obstacles, we would like to provide recommendations for investing these RGGI funds to best reduce the energy burdens for Virginians who need help the most.

Here are five specific recommendations:

First, DHCD’s dedicated low-income efficiency program should leverage successful programs such as the Weatherization Assistance Program which has been successfully administered by the department for decades to upgrade energy efficiency performance in existing homes. This maximizes existing staffing and program development and limits new administration costs, which is crucial given today’s budget constraints.  

• Second, DHCD must prioritize funding from RGGI for health and safety repairs for homes that have fallen into disrepair. Many homes that have structural deficiencies like a leaky roof or mold are “deferred” for upgrades and disallowed from receiving traditional efficiency upgrades until those basic repairs are completed. These repairs typically exceed the budget allowance for a project, causing the agency to “defer” it. These senseless denials often apply to as many as one in three projects. That cycle of neglect and bureaucracy must end. 

• Third, DHCD must also ensure that all housing types, from mobile homes to multifamily apartments and rentals, can benefit from these upgrades and benefits. Virginia’s diversity of landscapes and urban and rural areas have a variety of housing types that would benefit from the program. They could gain some of the biggest energy savings per dollar spent, especially those built before building codes required the efficiency standards. Where the Local Energy Alliance Program, a nonprofit that helps homes and businesses reduce energy costs, has the most experience, in Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville, 21,000 homes alone were built before 1970 when the building code first mandated insulation. The impact of energy savings from attic insulation increases exponentially as the pre-retrofit insulation level decreases, so just adding insulation to where there was little to none can generate savings of two to three times compared to a retrofit in a home built more recently. 

• Fourth, investing the funding soon after it’s received and for shovel-ready projects, rather than for potential projects not only benefits low-income households with their bills right away, but it also makes important longer-term environmental gains by saving energy demand and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

Fifth and lastly, homes and water heating systems should be permitted to be electrified, that is, wired for clean power from increasingly renewable energy, not just to reduce energy bills but to improve health and safety. Many low-income households are powered by inefficient fuel oil or propane, which pose safety concerns and aggravate respiratory conditions. Allowing funding for switching these systems in low-income housing will be a win-win. Not all programs currently funding energy efficiency work allow this switch, and this option should be supported and available to all households.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and LEAP are encouraged that improved conditions are on the horizon for the most  burdened among us. Executing the thoughtful design elements discussed above with a commitment to achieving racial equity, the Department of Health and Community Development will meet its mission of enhancing the quality of life of the Virginians who need it – and deserve it – the most.

Chris Meyer is the executive director of the Local Energy Alliance Program. Dawone Robinson is a director in the People & Communities Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.