Ever since the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 closed the spigot on cheap oil, “energy efficiency” has been part of the American vocabulary, especially with the new urgency to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. The past 50 years have brought huge innovations in renewable energy and energy conservation technology and programs, which save money and cut energy bills.
But there’s a gap in who is benefiting from these advances: Even though lower-income households use less energy on average than higher-income households, they usually bear a much higher energy burden: the percentage of household income spent on energy costs. A 2018 US Census study found that Vermont households with incomes below $27,800 spend an average of 18.3 percent of their income on energy—roughly seven times the portion of income paid by households with incomes above $118,000. These energy expenses fall mainly into two categories: thermal energy, or the fuel and electricity for heating and cooling your home; and transportation, such as the cost of gasoline for getting around.
What’s being done to address the unequal energy burden? Here’s a look at recent programs by Vital Communities and its partners that aim to make energy efficiency possible for everyone.
One resource in the struggle to tame the energy burden is the Upper Valley Energy Advocacy Council (EAC), which Vital Communities coordinates. Begun in 2018 as a conversation between staff at LISTEN and the Upper Valley Haven hoping to create better energy solutions for lower-income people, the council now includes representatives of the municipalities of Lebanon and Hartford, Southeastern Vermont Community Action, faith organizations, and Twin Pines Housing Trust. EAC projects have included working with landlords, creating fuel assistance cards, and training energy burden advocates to help local agencies deal with clients’ needs in this area.
“Energy burden has two pieces—there’s the energy part and the burden part,” said Listen Community Service Program Director Angy Zhang, who helped found the council. “I felt I had a good grasp of the burden part but that there was so much I didn’t understand about the landscape of sustainable energy. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that sustainability is for people who can afford it.”
Vital Communities and the energy experts “helped me understand that a lot of these programs could really, really benefit people in poverty or struggling. I hope what I have been able to bring to the table is that some of these programs were not really designed for people who were low-income,” leading to a discussion about how to improve them, she said. “By specifically focusing on the energy burden as it disproportionately impacts people in poverty, it continues to be a really helpful meeting.”
Using Neighbor Power to Improve Mobile Home Weatherization
When it comes to thermal efficiency, homes in the Upper Valley are at a disadvantage for three reasons. First, our homes are old, with 54% of New Hampshire homes and 59% of Vermont homes built prior to 1980. Second, we use more oil and propane than the rest of the country, two particularly expensive and polluting heat sources. Finally, our winters are cold and long.
While 283 Upper Valley homes were weatherized through campaigns Vital Communities ran with Town Energy Committees from 2017 to 2019, this effort didn’t work well for many lower-income people, said Sarah Brock, Vital Communities Program Director of Climate, Energy, Transportation. “The reality is, many of our neighbors can’t afford to spend money upfront for the long-term benefits of weatherization, or can’t make improvements to their homes because they don’t own their homes.”
Now in year three, the Mobile Home Energy Savings Outreach program is specially designed to work with those neighbors, particularly those living in mobile or manufactured homes. Although an important source of affordable housing—especially as part of nonprofit or resident-owned communities such as Whistlestop in Bradford, Red Maple in Springfield, or Riverside in Woodstock—mobile homes tend to use more energy per square foot than “stick-built” homes, and many contractors don’t know how to best weatherize them.
The program teams Vital Communities and the Town Energy Committees with the White River Junction-based nonprofit COVER Home Repair, which has a wealth of experience and techniques for weatherizing mobile homes and effectively serving more vulnerable populations. COVER’s techniques include installing insulated skirting around the base of mobile homes and rigid insulation under new roofing material. The program has also enabled COVER to experiment with ways of weatherizing mobile homes and test their effectiveness to help contractors enter that market.
So far, 11 towns (Hartford, Norwich, Rockingham, Sharon, Bethel, Chelsea, Hartland, Randolph, Springfield, Thetford, and Woodstock) have taken part. Sustainable Woodstock took part in the program in 2021 and is doing a second round of outreach this spring to mobile home residents. Their outreach is guided by an online Energy Burden Toolkit created by Vital Communities: resources for organizing town volunteers, reaching out to neighbors, and helping them sign up for energy help programs they qualify for, from fuel assistance to weatherization and home repair.
“The toolkit was really helpful,” said Sustainable Woodstock Program Director Jenevra Wetmore. “We are a small nonprofit and would not have been able to launch a campaign on our own. It was great to have access to the information and cheatsheets that Vital Communities provided so we could talk to people about what energy burden is and what programs are available.”
Part 2 – Stay tuned!