Fighting Climate Change and Heatstroke One Home at a Time

With their state’s joining of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Virginians are reaping the benefits of upgrades to their homes and quality of life.
A boy riding his bike in the Southwood Mobile Home Park in Charlottesville, Virginia

Julia Rendleman for the Washington Post via Getty Images

Rosemary Morris has lived in a mobile home in the Southwood neighborhood of Charlottesville, Virginia, for the past three decades. Here, leaky roofs, plumbing problems, and outdated, inefficient heating and cooling systems are commonplace. Until recently, Morris, a septuagenarian on a fixed income, would run her heating and cooling unit 24/7, but it would barely change the temperature inside her home. Such living situations aren’t only costly but can also be life-threatening should extreme weather hit.

Chris Meyer (second from left), executive director of the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), with fellow staff members

Courtesy of LEAP-VA

“The science is very straightforward: In extreme heat events…air-conditioning decreases emergency room visits and other health complications and costs that disproportionately affect low-income families,” says Chris Meyer, executive director of the Charlottesville-based Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), which worked with the local Habitat for Humanity and other groups to perform energy audits and make efficiency upgrades to homes in Southwood. “All of a sudden, residents are more comfortable in their homes, they are saving money on their monthly energy bills…and there is an extra climate change benefit when we can switch from fossil fuel appliances to electric.”

For Morris’s home, LEAP made the necessary repairs last year. It sealed gaps around windows and baseboards, added insulation in the attic, and installed a new electric heat pump for more efficient heating and cooling. Unlike previous years, Morris didn’t have to spend the summer sweating it out, and she immediately saw a drop in her monthly energy bills.

The process by which a heat pump works to heat a home

Jessica Russo/NRDC

Cooling Off the Commonwealth

Local data shows that one-quarter of low-income families in Richmond have an energy burden—or percentage of income spent on energy bills—above 16 percent. The burdens are even higher among BIPOC residents, with 28 percent of Black households and 24 percent of Latino households facing severe energy burdens. (According to the report, a high energy burden is considered above 6 percent.)

The issues of climate, health, and equity are the focus of NRDC’s Energy Efficiency for All, a project that works with national, local, and state partners to make multifamily affordable homes more energy and water efficient to help low-income communities of color with weatherization and utility bill relief.

As the climate crisis progresses, energy-efficient air conditioning is more important to public health than ever. In 2020, Virginia experienced one of its hottest summers on record and its second-longest streak of temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded at the Richmond International Airport.

Virginia residents cool off in the Rappahannock River in Fredricksburg, August 2021

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

“In Southeast states, air-conditioning is critical to maintain a tolerable indoor living environment,” says Dan Farrell, associate director of the energy efficiency office at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). “It’s not just a climate issue—it’s a cost issue. In homes with baseboard heaters and window AC units, installing a new heat pump provides heating and cooling much more efficiently and reduces costs.”

Despite the health, financial, and climate change benefits that come from things like insulating water heater tanks, sealing air leaks, and repairing leaky windows and doors, such weatherization upgrades are often too expensive for low-income homeowners to complete on their own. Federal funding to tackle these kinds of projects is available through the U.S. Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), but funds are limited and rules are strict.

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“At the individual homeowner level across the commonwealth, it’s not for lack of desire or interest that this work isn’t being done; it’s because people can’t afford it,” says Sunshine Mathon, executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, an affordable housing nonprofit based in Charlottesville. “As a nation, we have a 40-year backlog of repairs because of chronic underfunding,” he says of the federal program. Customers are reluctant to add their names to long waiting lists so they can get assistance in the distant future. “When you reach out and hear, ‘we can’t get to you for three years,’ there’s also some skepticism and disillusionment,” Mathon continues.

Thankfully, funds offered through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) are starting to help. The effort establishes regional limits on carbon pollution through a cap-and-trade agreement in which power plants can purchase, sell, or trade carbon permits during quarterly auctions. RGGI then invests the revenue generated into energy efficiency projects.

The initiative currently includes 11 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia. Since RGGI’s establishment in 2009, participating states have cut carbon emissions in half and helped consumers save $773 million in energy costs. When Virginia signed on in January, it became the first state in the Southeast to implement a statewide policy to reduce its carbon footprint.

Dominion Power Plant in Yorktown, Virginia

Carmen Shields via Flickr, CC BY-4.0

Maintenance Makes a Difference

In March, the DHCD received $21.7 million in proceeds from an RGGI auction and an additional $22.6 million in June. According to Farrell, 100 percent of the funds have already been allocated.

“The demand is great,” he says, estimating that structural repairs on 300 single-family and 600 multifamily units across Virginia would require an estimated $13 million in RGGI funds in the first year alone.

One of the biggest goals for the RGGI funding, Farrell continues, is providing repairs—and relief—for Virginians with “deferments” on their properties that have prevented weatherization repairs for many years.

The federal WAP puts strict limits on what repairs can be made with its funding. For instance, the program does not fund work on structural issues, like roof repairs, that need to be done before weatherization work can begin. Thus, homes in need of these kinds of improvements are under deferral until alternative funding sources can be identified to make the repairs.

In 2019, Community Housing Partners (CHP), the largest weatherization provider in the state, recorded 197 deferrals. According to CHP vice president Mark Jackson, addressing those projects with RGGI funds is a top priority. “We need RGGI funds to unlock those homes to be weatherization-ready so we can use federal funding and utility funding,” he says.

All Community Housing Partners (CHP) energy efficiency projects start with a comprehensive energy and safety inspection or audit of the home.

Courtesy of Community Housing Partners

In Charlottesville, $1.5 million in RGGI funds has already been spent to boost energy efficiency in affordable housing units. Friendship Court, a Section 8 community with 150 homes, is undergoing a four-phase redevelopment project that includes the installation of energy-efficient heat pumps, adequate insulation, and new ventless dryers to improve airflow within the home.

“What RGGI dollars do, in a really powerful way…is provide guaranteed funding at unprecedented levels,” says Mathon, adding that weatherization providers use RGGI funds to hire staff, grow their efforts, and reach out to those who haven’t taken advantage of the programs in the past. He estimates that 80 percent of the properties that his group manages could benefit from weatherization work. In the future, he hopes to combine federal WAP and RGGI funds to tackle the problem and help make these homes healthier, safer, and more comfortable for the residents, like Morris, who live in them.

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