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With continually rising energy costs and increasing energy demand, energy efficiency and conservation are of utmost importance.1 Since 1984, the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) has strived to help low-income homeowners in the Philadelphia area lower their energy consumption.2 Its efforts include weatherizing homes, making energy conservation repairs, and providing energy assistance and budget counseling to help customers pay their utility bills. The ECA has identified several pressing issues: a widening affordability gap for utilities, the deteriorated condition of much of the low-income housing stock, and a need for consumer energy education and for high-quality installation of energy conservation measures.
In the Philadelphia region, utility companies provide financial assistance to low-income customers, typically targeting those residents who are having difficulty paying their utility bills. This assistance is in the form of a subsidy that is distributed among the rate base. However, because utility prices are rising significantly, there is a widening affordability gap.3 According to Liz Robinson, executive director of the ECA, gas, electric, and water terminations are on the rise due to increasing energy costs and declining incomes. She has observed that these growing costs place greater burdens on homeowners and may be contributing to the expanding number of foreclosures. Robinson said that a great need exists for alternative methods for energy conservation in order to proactively approach this issue along with creating a greater awareness among policymakers that rising energy costs are a problem.
Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) employees air-seal and insulate a roof with spray foam and then coat the roof with a white paint that is durable and waterproof and provides a reflective coating.
The ECA’s approach to bridging the affordability gap is to reduce energy consumption for low-income homeowners. In describing the ECA’s plan, Robinson said, “We target low-income residents who have the highest energy consumption and who cannot afford their energy bills. Many are already receiving low-income assistance and subsidies. Our goal is to get energy consumption down by 50 percent and have an energy-efficient house.” To accomplish its goal, the ECA is working to implement good building science technology, is seeking high-quality installation of energy conservation work, and is working to influence the behavior of homeowners in regard to energy conservation.
The “Coolest Block Contest” is an example of a successful energy education and energy-efficiency initiative offered by the ECA in conjunction with the Dow Chemical Company and the city of Philadelphia. Through this contest, the ECA was able to weatherize one mixed-income block in Philadelphia.a The contest winners for this year were the 1200 block of Wolf Street in South Philadelphia.b In total, 39 homes on the block will be weatherized with materials provided by Dow; labor will be provided by ECA to air-seal and insulate the roof cavity with spray foam and to coat the roofs with a white acrylic elastomeric paint.
Liz Robinson believes that “row houses can be extremely energy efficient” and that weatherizing an entire block is much more effective than renovating one house at a time. This contest is innovative in that it encourages whole communities to work together and care for their homes. The ECA has found that once the block’s homeowners receive help, they are more likely to continue working with one another to further improve their block.
One program the ECA has used to attain its goal is the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP).4 The WAP is a federally funded program through which low-income homeowners can get assistance with energy conservation for their homes, including air-sealing, roof insulation, heating system repair or replacement, and many other treatments. Under the federal WAP, the ECA can spend $6,500 per house and up to $1,000 for home repairs. To maximize its use of this funding, the ECA plans to use the best materials from different manufacturers in order to provide the highest quality work.
However, Robinson also mentioned the deplorable condition of the homes of Philadelphia’s low-income high-energy users. These homes with above-average energy bills often need repairs that exceed the maximum of $1,000; therefore, these applicants must be turned away. According to the ECA, approximately 51 percent of the high-use households are rejected due to excessive repair costs. The ECA is continually working to expand the services it offers and to direct those applicants to other organizations that can assist them when the ECA cannot. Robinson said that additional resources from both the public sector and from utilities are being directed toward conservation efforts for all sectors: residential, commercial, and industrial.
For example, the ECA recently received a portion of a $25 million Recovery Through Retrofit grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for retrofitting residential and commercial buildings to make them more energy efficient.5 With the grant, which will be used in southeastern Pennsylvania, the ECA will administer energy upgrades on residential properties whose owners do not qualify as low income, while The Reinvestment Fund plans to perform energy upgrades on commercial properties. This program is called the EnergyWorks Program.
As part of the program, the ECA is able to offer lowinterest loans through AFC First Financial Corporation, a lender that specializes in energy-efficiency loans.6 These loans can be used for energy-efficiency upgrades. The program has two levels: silver and gold. The gold level uses a whole house approach, which begins with an energy analysis of the home that is performed by a certified building analyst. The silver level can be a single measure, such as a more energy-efficient heating system. All analysts and contractors who participate in the EnergyWorks Program will be trained and certified.
Another challenge in the region is the need for energy education. As a national leader in this area, the ECA has advocated for and succeeded in incorporating energy education into all low-income conservation programs in the city and in the statewide WAP. The ECA has 15 Neighborhood Energy Centers in operation where low-income residents can obtain a range of energy services.
The ECA recently opened the Knight Green Jobs Training Center in North Philadelphia, where it provides men and women with training that can help them qualify for private-sector jobs. To ensure that trainees have the skills necessary to complete high-quality installations, the ECA provides and mandates certification to the national standards set forth by the Building Performance Institute. The center trains approximately 750 men and women a year in a range of energy conservation skills, leading to state and national certifications. Through a partnership with the Community College of Philadelphia, the ECA is able to offer building science courses and is also partnering with other universities in the region to develop a continuum of training in building science — from high school through technical training to community college and bachelor degree programs.
Energy costs will not decrease in the foreseeable future, and new alternatives need to be developed. Therefore, it is critical to have a more extensive dialogue between the housing and energy sectors in order to find better solutions to these energy issues.