Column by Kerri Walker: RGGI helps low-income households, especially in rural areas | Columnists

By Kerri Walker

Thanks to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), thousands of low-income Virginia households now have the opportunity to break out of a cycle of paying high energy bills caused by inefficiency. Low-income housing tends to have inadequate insulation and inefficient heating and cooling devices. This makes housing cheaper initially, but results year after year in incredibly high energy bills for those Virginians who can least afford it.

For 16 years, I worked for project:HOMES, a nonprofit housing agency and Weather Assistance Program (WAP) provider. The nonprofit currently serves 18 counties and nine cities to improve and maintain affordable, energy-efficient housing in Virginia.

When a home is fully weatherized, energy bills can be reduced by 25-30%. But the federal funding that provides free weatherization to low-income households doesn’t cover some repairs that must be in place before the efficiency improvements are installed. My team will visit a potential client’s home, inspect it, and then have to leave or “defer” their help. The reason: their house needs repairs that are too expensive for them before we can weatherize their house for free.

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For years, the Virginia WAP network searched for ways to find resources that would avoid delaying nearly one in five customers. In my experience, rooftops are one of the main reasons for postponements. We can’t weatherproof a house if the roof is damaged and leaking because adding insulation will turn the whole thing into a heavy, dense sponge. Damp insulation is the main cause of ceiling collapse.

In addition to damaged roofs, other common reasons for postponement are structural problems, moisture, and electrical issues. Although the term “deferred” implies that we will come back later to do the work, the reality is that most deferred candidates cannot afford the repairs; they are forced to pay high energy bills.

This year, RGGI funds became available to make necessary repairs so that otherwise deferred applicants can qualify for the federally funded WAP program. Funding from RGGI is just beginning to potentially help thousands of low-income households across Virginia stop wasting energy and comfortably lower their energy bills.

RGGI’s low-income energy efficiency funds strengthen the surrounding community, while directly benefiting the household that receives the weatherization and efficiency upgrades.

Thanks to RGGI funds, we have been able to employ more people in the energy field and we have been able to expand our work with a network of heating, roofing, plumbing and electrical contractors in our 18-county service area. Approximately 38 contractors benefit from the work our agency alone generates with RGGI funding. These local contractors spend funds in their communities to purchase materials and supplies to complete the work.

It is very difficult to run a weatherization program with high carryover rates. Deferrals impact our ability to meet our WAP production targets. When we have a deferral, the time spent processing the request, doing the site inspection, and then properly deferring the work is wasted time that does not contribute to our production goals.

To responsibly spend available federal funds, we need production – deferrals hinder production, cost us valuable staff time, and result in less service to the communities we serve. Overcoming these carryovers is good business.

While we leverage RGGI funding in all of the communities we serve, our rural communities are the ones who benefit the most from this new program. The six highest counties in Virginia for deferrals are Accomack, Buckingham, Charles City, Hanover, Northampton and Prince Edward.

One of the reasons deferrals are higher in these communities is that residents of these areas do not have access to the same types of housing programs as urban and suburban residents. To date, 65% of the homes we help with RGGI funds are in our rural counties.

The regional greenhouse gas initiative is a big win for Virginia residents: supporting job growth, contributing to local economic growth, improving their homes and helping the environment. Few programs make a significant difference on so many levels. We hope energy efficiency funding for low-income people is here to stay. The value that RGGI brings to all Virginians cannot be underestimated.

Kerri Walker has worked for project:HOMES, a Richmond-based nonprofit housing agency, for 16 years. She has led the energy conservation division for the past decade. Contact her at: [email protected]