What Energy Efficiency Means for My Community

Here in Marion County, we have some wonderful, hardworking people. But every day, I see members of my congregation and the greater community struggle to pay their bills, get food on the table, and support their families. A large part of this burden is tied to poor housing conditions.

Many families live in manufactured homes or houses that were built decades ago, sometimes using lumber from older buildings. As these homes age, families are often faced with crumbling floors and ceilings, causing major safety issues. In addition, these homes are also very energy-inefficient. Few houses have adequate insulation, and as they shift over time, the doors, floors and windows pull away from the frames. Heated air in winter and cooled air in summer leak out the cracks. And when a family’s financial resources are strained by paying high energy bills, they have to make tough decisions — like choosing between buying medicine or running the air conditioner. When it’s close to 100 degrees with high humidity, air conditioning isn’t just for comfort. It’s also a health concern.

You see, everything is connected. And fixing up just part of the house or replacing some light bulbs isn’t enough. Instead, we need to do everything we can to fix the whole house to make it safe, healthy and affordable.

Below are profiles of some of the families from just one county, Marion County, who would benefit from this approach:

 

[If someone could come in and replace the roof and floors], it would mean the world. I’m praying every day that something will come my way. — Helen Gause

On a hot afternoon in June, Helene watches her grandchildren, Ty Harper and Janiah Davis, play in the living room. The doors are open to help circulate the air while her two, partially functioning window units sit idly. Even though central air is on her wish list of home improvements, Helene’s top priorities are repairing the roof and floor of her home. The roof leaks when it rains, and she often fears that her grandchildren could fall through the floor. Helene recognizes that these structural issues also contribute to her high electricity bill, about $150 each month, but she does not have the financial means to pay for the necessary repairs — especially all at once.

You can look and see the little cracks around the window. You can feel the air coming through. — Helen Hemingway

Harry and Helen Hemingway have been living in their home since 1970. In 2008, the organization Safe Home replaced six of their ten windows to improve the home’s energy efficiency. But warm air in winter and cool air in summer continue to leak through the cracks around the old windows, the roof and the doors. Harry and Helen pay an electric bill between $200 and $500 each month.

The gas bill this summer was about $2,000 a month. — Etta Grane

Johnny and Etta Grane have lived in their home for nearly 50 years. Shortly after the recession, Santee Electric replaced eight of their ten windows and built them a new roof with insulation. Johnny and Etta said it helped, but their monthly electric bill is a significant financial burden. They use propane gas to heat their home and central air to cool it.

I don’t know if he can’t stand all that air or if he’s just looking out for the bill. — Mamie Robinson

Calvin Woodberry and his sister Mamie grew up in a home not far from where he lives now. His electric bill in summer is relatively low, but in winter, he pays about $400 for propane gas. The windows and roof need to be replaced, but as a person who uses a wheelchair, his main priority is repairing the floors. Calvin has not participated in any of the local home improvement programs.

Shortly after these photos were taken, Calvin passed away.


The families described above are just a few of the thousands of South Carolina residents who need our help to live safely and comfortably in their own homes. Every day, I am reminded of the need in my community. I know the situation here is not unique to Marion County or even our state. But as South Carolina develops its new energy plan, I am hopeful. We have an opportunity to create programs that could help low-income families live in safe, energy-efficient homes. We can become a proud example in the Southeast and across the nation, for all states striving to create their own pathways toward a cleaner energy future.

An Energy Efficient Future

In 1999, members from my congregation and the greater community gathered to discuss the overwhelming need for safe and energy-efficient houses in Marion County, SC. We developed the Eastern Carolina Community Development Corporation, now the New Alpha Community Development Corporation, and with support from the South Carolina Housing Trust Fund, we were able to improve 84 homes for low-income and fixed-income families. Funding, however, was a constant challenge. After repairing roofs, replacing plumbing and floors, there was never enough money to put in new water heaters or other energy-efficient systems.

When the 2008 recession hit, our resources — and our impact — were further reduced.

With the EPA’s newly proposed Clean Power Plan, however, this could dramatically change. Each state is required to submit an energy proposal, explaining how it will cut carbon to meet national standards. As South Carolina develops its own 2030 energy plan, it is imperative that it includes energy-efficiency programs to support just and equitable access to safe, comfortable living conditions. The South Carolina Energy Stakeholders Group is a coalition of utilities, conservation groups and government agencies. As a member, I can say that one of our primary goals is to make sure communities, especially low-income communities, are involved in the development of South Carolina’s energy plan. The effects of climate change often hit people of color and low-income communities hardest, and this is an opportunity for these communities to engage in and benefit from climate action. To ensure a clean energy future, all stakeholders need to be part of and benefit from the process.

The New Alpha Community Development Corporation has recently developed new partnerships with Duke Electric Cooperative and the American Council on Energy Efficiency Economies (ACEEE). With more funding and partnerships, we can expand our outreach to repair more homes, improve their energy efficiency, and explore opportunities with solar power generation.

Jay Kirby with Help My House and Terese Patterson’s home that underwent Energy Efficiency Upgrades, South Carolina.

One of these programs is Help My House, an on-bill financing program designed to improve members’ comfort and efficiency in their homes. Paying for the upfront costs of home repair and energy-efficiency retrofits can be challenging. With on-bill financing, however, a utility covers these initial costs, and the homeowner pays back a low-interest loan that’s added to their monthly energy bills. The goal is net neutrality, meaning that the energy saved from the efficiency improvements would cover the monthly loan payment.

This type of program results in lower energy bills, a more comfortable home environment, and a decrease in the amount of energy generated to meet regional demand. Another benefit is that the loan stays with the house instead of the homeowner. A lot of the people who would benefit the most from this type of program are paying the highest electric bills, sometimes as much as $2000.

Participating in Help My House or one like it means that people don’t have to decide between buying medicine and paying bills.

I have seen South Carolina undergo great changes in my lifetime, and as I look to the future, I envision vibrant communities, boosted by job opportunities in wind, solar and geothermal. I envision healthy communities, free from pollution caused by the fossil fuel industries. But most importantly, I envision equitable communities.


To learn more about on-bill financing programs, visit:

http://aceee.org/sector/state-policy/toolkit/on-bill-financing

For examples of on-bill financing programs in other states, visit:

Why We Need to Talk About Energy and Equity Together

As we swing into Fall and welcome a change of season, I’m reminded that October marks Energy Awareness Month. This change of seasons can also mean increased penny pinching and hardship in my community. It’s an opportune time to talk about how we all — our government, state officials and local communities — can get better about managing energy resources and help struggling families out. For me, it’s also a necessary moment to emphasize the need to provide accessible, sustainable and equitable energy resources for everyone, particularly low-income families.

Originally, I grew up in New York City, but I spent my summers with family in rural Marion County, in Britton’s Neck, South Carolina. This area is as much a part of me as New York is. It’s where I have roots and is my family, my community and my home. The story of my own community that follows is a prime example of why we need to focus on smart ways to support equitable solutions

Located in northeast South Carolina, Marion County has a long, rich history. At first glance, you quickly pick up on its agricultural past. Remnants of tobacco fields still linger and rural schoolhouses sprinkle the countryside. Yet, despite Marion’s abundant farmland, the last thirty years have brought dramatic changes to the residents of my county.

Back in the 1980s, Marion County was booming with a newly revitalized economy. Residents worked in everything from textile to candy production. People had good jobs, were purchasing homes for the first time and buying cars — perhaps even two cars. Quality of life was on an upswing for residents and their families.

However, that all changed on January 1st, 1994. This marked the first day the NAFTA Trade Agreement went into effect. The very same manufacturing businesses that rejuvenated the county back in the ’80s left, abandoning their factory plants and building new ones abroad. This devastated Marion County.

The real tragedy? No new industry took its place.

Now, people can no longer rely on a salary and must depend on hourly, minimum wages. During peak tourist months — from sun up till sundown — Marion residents rely on hotel cleaning jobs in nearby Myrtle Beach, about a 35 mile ride away. They try to save as much money as possible over the summer months, but it just isn’t enough. When the season changes, they can’t find proper employment and many go into severe debt. My beloved Marion County has become one of the most impoverished counties with the highest unemployment rate in South Carolina. And this is having grave effects on the future of this area and its residents.

There is a continued “making do and bust” culture evolving — where we try to make the best of our living conditions, even though the system has set us up to fail. And to make matters worse, our climate has shifted as well. To put it simply, it’s too hot. We experience more rain and flooding than ever before and it’s destroying whatever agriculture industry we have left. If we don’t find good low-cost ways to use and provide energy more efficiently, we will eventually all be affected.

Residents from Marion County, SC — pictured (top to bottom): Calvin Woodberry and sister, Mamie Robinson; Harry and Helen Hemingway; and Helene Gause and her grandkids.

 

But I am hopeful. Yes, I am. Already, South Carolina is building crucial public/private partnerships that are getting good work done, but they need to be expanded. Programs like Help my House, where rural electric cooperatives — through on-bill financing — work with low-income households and make improvements that dramatically lower energy bills. This helps bring residents out of debt and provides more comfortable and sustainable living conditions. I think South Carolina can lead the way in how we create new jobs, improve living conditions and tackle climate change, while at the same time, transform how we treat our fellow community members. We all need to understand what’s at stake, as a country, not only in terms of helping families make ends meet, but in terms of a changing climate that could harm our communities in long and lasting ways.