Clean, Efficient Energy Can Boost Resilience in Marginalized Communities

Climate change impacts Americans at all levels of society, but most climate impacts hit marginalized communities the hardest. Low-income communities – which, due to systemic and structural inequalities, are disproportionately made up of people of color – are most vulnerable as they often lack the financial capacity to cope with the added cost of responding to impacts like extreme weather events, extreme heat, and flooding. Additionally, low-income communities already face high energy cost burdens due to lack of access to energy efficiency improvements like insulation from heat and cold. At the same time, the buildings sector accounts for roughly 29 percent of the U.S.’ emissions. This makes decarbonizing the sector crucial to decarbonizing the American economy.

To address these twin challenges in the residential sector, the Department of Energy (DOE) administers programs such as the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the Clean Energy for Low Income Communities Accelerator (CELICA), which provide resources to deliver home energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy resources to low- and moderate-income families. These programs have both helped households reduce their energy costs and spurred job creation. The current economic and environmental realities mean that programs like these are going to become even more essential as communities grapple with the economic and public health fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Making Communities More Resilient Through the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP)

WAP provides grants to states, tribes, and territories, who work with local nonprofits, agencies, and governments to provide home energy efficiency improvements to low-income families. The improvements save households money both by reducing energy costs and boosting the community’s economy through the employment of local workers. Energy efficiency improvements also fight climate change by cutting emissions. For communities, improved economic health can help build resilience to future threats like climate impacts and even pandemics.

WAP funds energy audits and diagnostic equipment to identify the most cost-effective ways to boost building energy efficiency, which can also address health and safety concerns in some cases. WAP can also be a useful tool in reducing unemployment and improving income stability. In 2008, WAP helped support 8,600 jobs that generated $476 million in wages.

Between 1976 and 2016, WAP weatherized 7 million homes. Since the beginning of the program, it is estimated that WAP has saved participating households an average of $283 annually in energy costs. Weatherization improvements supported by WAP also reduced the number of days participants missed work due to health issues, preventing approximately $583/year in lost wages and an average of $514/year in additional out of pocket medical expenses. By weatherizing 40,000 homes a year, WAP generates roughly $55 million in annual energy, wage, and health benefits for these communities. A study done by Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that, in addition to saving households money, WAP can also reduce emissions by up to two million metric tons of CO2 annually.

Weatherization Assistance Program Yearly Household Benefits in 2016

In many cases, serious health and safety issues like mold, leaky roofs, asbestos, and general deterioration can prevent 15 percent of eligible homes from being weatherized. For example, in Philadelphia alone, 65 percent of low-income communities with high energy consumption experience significant home deterioration challenges, which prevent weatherization efforts. If homeowners or tenants are unable to address those underlying concerns, they are often unable to use WAP. To be able to maximize the value of the program for recipients, congress should consider further investment to expand the funding available to WAP and support necessary renovation to make homes weatherization-ready.

Building on the Success of the Clean Energy for Low Income Communities Accelerator (CELICA)

Achieving a 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the buildings sector would require cutting energy emissions from both homes and business. However, low-income households often lack the resources needed to cut their emissions by fully electrifying appliances or accommodating new renewable technologies. CELICA was created to specifically address the energy burden in low income communities by helping to support local renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

CELICA was an accelerator program launched by DOE’s Better Buildings Program. Better Buildings Accelerators are temporary programs established to address specific obstacles to efficiency. Like WAP, CELICA focused on expanding energy efficiency in low-income households, but it also aimed to expand the installation of renewable sources of energy. In addition, CELICA created a toolkit to provide state and local program managers with the tools, resources, and models to allow them to establish energy efficiency and renewable energy programs in low- and moderate-income communities. Through partnerships between DOE and state and local governments, CELICA leveraged approximately $335 million in efficiency and renewable energy projects for 155,000 homes. The CELICA toolkit also provided approaches for decreasing the knowledge gap that often exists between DOE resources and state/local low-income energy-related programs. The “Stakeholder Engagement” section in the toolkit outlines strategies and a template for state and local programs to work with stakeholders to ensure the efficacy of energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

CELICA created a template for partnerships with DOE to be able to advance the implementation of renewables technologies. For example, in Tennessee, the non-profit organization GreenSpaces was able to provide energy efficiency supplies and education to low-income communities which resulted in an average of 15 percent reduction in energy costs for participants. Additionally, in Washington, D.C., the Solar for All Innovation and Expansion program is looking to install 240 to 300 megawatts of solar power, which would reduce approximately 119 to 149 metric tons of CO2 emissions over 15 years. CELICA also helped create a partnership between Colorado Energy Office and the utility company Xcel Energy to increase access to clean, affordable energy, including 18 megawatts of new low-income community solar power.

Information about beneficial DOE programs may not reach many marginalized communities, restricting their access to programs advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. CELICA provided a foundation for closing this knowledge gap by providing state and local government strategies for stakeholder engagement, as well as tools and templates that assess community barriers and help move projects ahead. It will be important for the federal government to learn and build from the success of CELICA when moving forward future programs.

Moving Forward with Recovery and Resilience  

The longer it takes to reinvigorate the economies in these communities, the more vulnerable they will become to future extreme weather and other climate-related impacts. Programs like CELICA and WAP have helped support job creation and should be used to stimulate the economy and support low-income communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Any economic recovery-related legislation should prioritize expanding funding for existing programs like WAP and future efforts like CELICA to ensure that these communities are more sustainable and resilient, not only to climate-related hazards but also to future economic and public health challenges.