Home energy costs: A question of justice

Home energy costs: A question of justice

 In 2014, green│spaces asked a question. Which Chattanooga-area homes use the most energy?

Was it the 5-bedroom luxury homes, with their appliances, computer equipment, cathedral-ceilinged great rooms, and lit-up landscaping?

The answer: Nope. Not at all.

The homes using more energy turned out to be the smaller, older homes in East Chattanooga, Highland Park, and East Lake. At lot more. Forty-three percent more per square foot than the Chattanooga average in the winter.

Which is a problem.

Because homes with the most energy use have the highest energy bills.

And the people in East Chattanooga, Highland Park, and East Lake are the people who can least afford to pay them.

That’s what we call an environmental justice issue.

Environmental justice: A healthy environment for all

Environmental justice is an important topic. For example, in many parts of our country, our poorest citizens live in the most polluted areas. As a result, they are more likely to suffer diseases like asthma and cancer. It’s harder to sell a house in a polluted area. And it’s harder to get companies offering good jobs to locate there.

Working for environmental justice means working to make sure everyone gets the same protection from things that degrade our environment and threaten our health. It also means making sure that environmental improvements are spread equally throughout our communities.

When it comes to residential energy use, wealthier people can afford to invest in measures that make their homes more efficient, even if those homes are bigger. As a result, they have lower energy bills —especially when you measure them as a percent of their income.

Poorer citizens often lack the resources to make their homes energy efficient. Without adequate HVAC systems, proper insulation, and weather stripping to block drafts, they rely on space heaters to keep warm. Replacing older appliances with new energy-efficient ones isn’t feasible. At the end of the month, they get energy bills that can eat up a huge share of their income.

Enter Empower Chattanooga

Empower Chattanooga is a community-wide effort to improve the environmental and social sustainability of our city. In partnership with the Electric Power Board, the City of Chattanooga, Chattanooga Gas, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, green│spaces developed a plan to help the people in East Lake, East Chattanooga, and Highland Park reduce their energy bills.

This plan involved using the millions of dollars in funding that was easily available to the people in these neighborhoods for such measures as replacing old windows, adding crawl space and attic insulation, and installing high-efficiency HVAC systems.

Sorry, we started daydreaming there for a second. No, of course that kind of funding wasn’t available.

Instead, we developed education programs and brought them out to the neighborhoods. We invited neighbors to movie nights. We spoke at neighborhood association meetings. We went into the schools. Everywhere we went, we talked about the low-cost and no-cost things people could do to help reduce their energy bills. Things like installing rope caulk, window film, water-heater temperature gauges, and whistles that tell when HVAC filters need replacing.

People we talked to in the target neighborhoods took this information and conveyed it to their friends and neighbors. This was really important. Because sustainability messages don’t stick unless they come from somebody the community trusts.

So we could measure success, we asked participants for access to their utility data, and a number of people agreed. It’s early in the process, but we are already seeing some great results. For example, some people whose electricity usage was very high are seeing it come down more in line with neighborhood averages.

What’s next?

Empower Chattanooga is still growing. In the future, we hope to help more people who want to stop paying too much for their utilities. We are offering more classes each month, and we’re partnering with more organizations like MetMin, the Chattanooga Library, Community Kitchen, and LIHEAP, just to name a few.

If we’re successful, our neighbors in East Lake, East Chattanooga, and Highland Park will have homes that are more comfortable, more sustainable, and cost less to heat, cool, and light.

But that’s not all we’re hoping.

These neighborhoods are underserved in so many ways, from a lack of parks to a dearth of reasonably priced grocery stores to more than their fair share of crime. The vast majority of the people who live there care about their communities and want to see them thrive. They know the importance of healthy food, clean air and water, and a stable climate. That’s what they want for themselves and their families.

So we’re hoping that Empower Chattanooga shines new light on the needs of these communities. We’re hoping that the program helps better connect residents to all the resources that are available. And we’re hoping that our efforts are just the first small steps on a journey toward a sustainable environment and economy that works for everyone, in every neighborhood across our city.

Guest Writer L.Bell