Boosting Energy Efficiency in the Old Dominion

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This month marks the end of a banner year for Dominion Power, Virginia’s largest energy utility: a year after launching an expansion of their low-income EnergyShare program, they’ve weatherized an impressive 7,000 homes.

That’s impressive enough, but what’s more impressive is that 87 percent of those are multifamily homes (i.e., apartments). That’s a good start, and Dominion should double down and grow that program, rather than cut it, and here’s why:

There’s a lot more progress ahead, when more than 1 in 10 homes in Virginia are affordable multifamily homes, whose electricity usage could be reduced 28 percent while natural gas usage could be reduced 19 percent (as evidenced by a recent study from Optimal Energy). And every dollar invested would yield $2.90 in benefits, which is a great return.

The households benefiting from these investments are especially in need of relief from high energy costs. An April 2016 report from the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy (ACEEE) and the Energy Efficiency for All coalition found that low-income households in Richmond and Virginia Beach burned up more than double their incomes on energy, compared to median households.  Expanding on Dominion’s success is crucial because those larger burdens could be slashed by as much as 30 percent, thanks to energy-efficiency-boosting investments such as better insulation and lighting.

This would benefit consumers such as Eilene Kondysar, whose story is told in Dominion’s special report about the anniversary of EnergyShare. Hailing from James City County, Ms. Kondysar described her energy bills as “astronomical” which competed with the cost of her mortgage and the need to make her home comfortable for herself and her one-year-old grandson. After contacting project:HOMES, and thanks to funding from this Dominion program, this is how this story ends:

Volunteers and contractors replaced her A/C and heating units with an efficient new unit, put insulation under the house, and installed low-flow showerheads and a whole-house fan to help Eilene save money and improve her family’s quality of life.

After her home was finished, Eilene reported that the air felt cleaner, her house warmed and cooled easily, and she expects much lower energy bills. And now her grandson comes over to stay. 

(Source: Dominion special report)

While this heartwarming story is a reminder of the importance of these new investments by Dominion Power, it’s worth remembering the broader context. Virginia has a dismal track record of investment in energy efficiency, with ACEEE ranking them at 31st in its respected state policy scorecard last year (Virginia scooped up a paltry 13 of 50 possible points).

And while improvement projects for 6100 low-income apartments in a year is a laudable boost, it is a small dent when you remember the total number of such apartments in the state: 385,000. It is also worth looking at the sum total of these investments in context. Dominion Power plans to invest $57 million in such energy efficiency projects through 2019, with the investment level doubling from 2015-2016 and remaining at that level ($9 million/yr) in 2017. Unfortunately, however, according to Dominion’s report, that will then be cut by two-thirds in 2018 and 2019.

Given Dominion’s recent successes, it’s clear that the long game is to in fact save more and more energy and improve the homes and quality of life for more and more tenants. Happily, there’s even a coalition that is playing that long game too, with a goal of improving 25 percent of Virginia’s affordable apartments by 2025: The Virginia Multifamily Energy Efficiency Coalition, which includes NRDC staff (yours truly) among its 29 members. In addition, the state has a governor who is willing to challenge Dominion, as he did last week, to build on its success in boosting low-income energy efficiency by doing more.

The bottom line? The thousands of home improvement projects completed in the past year, as well as the consequent energy and non-energy benefits to heavily burdened low-income Virginians, are worth celebrating. It’s good start, and supporters look forward to making more progress towards an energy efficient commonwealth. Let’s get to work.

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