Decades of research show an energy efficient home is more likely to be a healthier home.
Inefficiency does more than waste energy. It penalizes low-income households with financial burdens and creates conditions that are ripe for moisture, mold, and pests. This can make chronic health issues like asthma worse, especially for children. Inefficient homes are expensive to heat and cool, placing residents at risk of thermal discomfort and illness.
The current COVID-19 health crisis adds another significant risk factor for many families.
At Highest Risk?
The potential for heat-related illness caused by inefficiencies is high in the Southeast, where the high number of hot and humid days requires near-constant use of energy-intensive air conditioning during summer months. Use of AC eats up more than a quarter of all energy costs in the hottest parts of the region. Although the Southeast has some of the lowest electricity rates in the contiguous United States, it has the highest monthly bills.
Millions of low-income households struggle to keep their residences at a safe temperature because they live in old homes that are hard to keep cool. An estimated five million households in the South (11% of homes in the region) leave their home at an unhealthy temperature because of the cost, while 10.8 million (24% of Southern homes) have had to cut back on food and/or medicine to pay their energy bills. A bleak 3.9 million households (9% of Southern homes) lack access to operable cooling equipment.
According to research by Indiana University, between April and May 2020, 34.5% of U.S. Black and Hispanic households experienced a utility shut off, compared to 8.9% of Caucasian households. Responding to economic pressures on families due to the coronavirus, several public utility commissions have issued temporary holds on utility shut-offs, however over 800,000 households may have recently experienced disconnections, per that same report.
Customers who cannot pay their bills – an estimated one of every three households – can be subjected to power shutoffs even in dangerously hot weather. Aside from utility commission activity due to the pandemic, only two state-level public service commissions in the South – and only ten in the entire nation – prevent utility shutoffs during periods of extreme heat. Federal bill payment and weatherization programs intended as safety nets are chronically underfunded, reaching only 20% of eligible households.
Disaster-induced power outages also put vulnerable communities at high risk for heat-related illness and death. After Hurricane Irma knocked out power in Hollywood, Florida in 2017, twelve people died in a nursing home unable to use air conditioning. Southern communities face an elevated risk of heat-related injuries as climate change increases temperatures and weather volatility. The Southeast is at a high risk for “killer heat,” says the Union of Concerned Scientists. The number of days over 100°F will triple by midcentury, while days exceeding 105°F will increase from fewer than nine per year to more than six weeks.
How Can Efficiency Help Prevent Medical Emergencies?
Energy efficiency can help prevent heat-related illness and death by providing affordable access to reliable cooling. Measures like air sealing, adding insulation, and updating windows improve the building exterior, reducing work for air conditioning systems. Cutting waste in America’s homes will also lower the sizeable climate footprint of running air conditioners, by requiring less electricity to maintain cool temperatures.
Energy efficiency is often the first step and a smart solution for low income households to live more comfortable and healthy lives. Here are ways communities are helping:
Preventing heat-related illness requires robust federal support for the critically underfunded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides low-income households with short-term bill payment assistance. It funds federal, state, and utility weatherization programs that provide long-term solutions by financing energy efficiency upgrades for households that otherwise could not afford them. In March 2020, the pandemic response package added $900 million for LIHEAP. Learn more here.
Innovative tariff-on-bill financing models have been successful in supporting efficiency retrofits for low-income consumers, even renters. More of them should be adopted by utilities and funding agencies. Contact your local utility to ask about the status of efficiency programs in your service area.
Finally, updating and improving existing building energy codes will ensure that all new housing is built to minimum acceptable standards for affordability, health, and safety.
Be Resilient, Now More Than Ever.
Energy efficiency can play a key role in making American communities more resilient in the face of increasing temperatures and the threat of disasters. And remember that resilience is only possible when the communities who are most at risk benefit first. This requires rethinking how we allocate energy efficiency resources and fund critical programs.