Low- and Middle-Income (LMI) households have historically faced obstacles to becoming more energy efficient, despite the outsized impact efficiency measures would have for this population.
Low-income households pay more than 7 percent of their income on energy bills, three times that of higher income households, and if LMI households could reach average efficiency, their bills would be reduced by a third. However, many LMI households don’t have the savings or the credit to implement energy efficiency measures and aren’t aware of programs and incentives that could make efficiency more affordable.
Programs like the Weatherization Assistance Program and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program are operated by different federal departments, and a lack of coordination between programs in some areas make it difficult for LMI households to apply or leverage the programs to the best advantage. For example, if a household is consistently applying for LIHEAP funds, it may be an indication that weatherization would help lower the overall energy bill. However, if the same entity isn’t administering both programs in the community, then that connection made not be made.
Program awareness is made more difficult through a lack of trust in low-income neighborhoods, where predatory financial lenders have made residents wary of free or low-cost measures and there is a reluctance to allow people from outside the community into their homes, said Tony Reames, director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Diversifying the workforce that conducts onsite energy efficiency measures and working with long-standing and trusted community partners, such as community centers or churches, is one way to elicit more trust and participation, he added.
Because of their struggles with affordability, one in five LMI households have reduced spending on food or medicine and 10 percent keep their homes at unsafe temperatures to reduce their energy bill. And, similar to food deserts, energy efficiency is often a costlier or more difficult to procure option in low-income neighborhoods than in more affluent neighborhoods. Many low-income communities have older homes that have not been updated because systemic policies such as redlining, resulting in housing stock that has poor efficiency.
Some states are addressing the financial obstacle by allowing on-bill financing or recovery, which allows rate payers to pay for efficiency upgrades over time, such as New York’s “bill neutral” program, established through the Green Jobs-Green New York Act and the Power NY Act. The two-tier program offers private market loans to those who can meet the credit requirements and a second, utility-financed tier for those who can’t. Those on the utility-financed tier also receive a lower interest rate, based on an area’s median income.
Oregon’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Technology Act offers a state loan program with an on-bill financing, that offers loans between $2,000 and $30,000 for efficiency and includes a free energy audit as part of the financing process. The Help My House program, launched by a group of South Carolina co-operatives with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program funding, also utilizes on-bill financing to fund a whole-home energy efficiency approach. Those who participated in the pilot are paying off the 10-year loans through a surcharge on their bills. However, because they’ve saved so much through whole-home efficiency, there is an average $25 savings each month, even with the loan.
Legislators and regulators also expect utilities to include energy efficiency programs for LMI households in their portfolios. A partnership with HomeServe can help proactively address energy efficiency and safety for your LMI customers with a suite of optional home repair policies that cover every energy contingency, from gas lines to exterior electric to HVAC and water heaters.
LMI households will often not address maintenance and repair issues, even if it means their whole home systems are not working efficiently, because they can’t afford to address them. For example, an annual HVAC system tune-up can ensure that systems are working at an optimal level and that small issued are addressed before they become big problems. Water heaters also require regular maintenance and lose efficiency over time, with most having only a useable lifespan of only 10 years.
HomeServe policies can address all these issues for your LMI customers and help them keep their home energy systems in the best shape possible. For more information about how we can help your customers improve their energy efficiency, contact us.