A recently released report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and Energy Efficiency For All (EEFA) called Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities looked into the energy burden (percent of household income spent on utilities) for renters and for low income, African-American and Latino households. The report highlights the fact that low-income households have an energy burden of 7.2 percent, which was over 3 times that of higher income households (2.3 percent). For households with high energy burdens, paying utility bills drain a large share of the income which then cannot be used to cover crucial expenses like rent, food or medicine.
Particularly notable for our region was the fact that out of all the cities analyzed, cities in the Southeast (Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and New Orleans) had the four worst energy burden scores across the nation. And the Southeast had the highest median energy burden (average burden among the groups analyzed) of all regions. High energy burdens could be attributed to various factors. Common causes of high energy burden include:
The report also points out that, while the Southeast has low energy rates, “southeastern utilities serving major cities currently have the lowest investment in energy efficiency programs as compared with other regions.” This suggests that low energy rates are not translating to low energy bills and that the underinvestment in energy efficiency, particularly for these groups, is making matters worse.
But the good news is that the problem of high energy burdens can be effectively addressed. An initial solution is to look towards bill assistance programs that can help families pay their immediate home energy bills. However it is crucial to reach deeper and address the roots of these problems. A second step is to look to weatherization programs which will help upgrade the efficiency of the building envelope. Things like weather stripping, air sealing and installing insulation can significantly reduce energy consumption in homes. And finally, the report points to "utility energy efficiency programs" which can "include a variety of programs that reach beyond the building envelope."
Ultimately, we will need utilities in the Southeast to significantly ramp up their energy efficiency programs. There is no reason why our region should lag behind other parts of the country in our energy efficiency investment or for our largest cities to be affected by such high energy burdens. However, many utility energy efficiency programs do not reach low income households effectively, and as such need to properly emphasize these sectors in order to address the high energy burdens the report has identified.