Low-income energy-efficiency fund gets $3.5B but omits many – NPR

by | May 13, 2022 | Energy

Veronica Stovall, left, helped her father, Joseph L. Davis, apply for a federally-funded energy-efficiency program in 2021. It turned up significant repair needs.

Hannah Yoon for NPR

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Hannah Yoon for NPR

Joseph Davis raised five children in the two-story row home he and his wife bought in the mid-1960s in North Philadelphia, near the automotive parts factory where he worked. Now, Davis struggles to keep up the house on a fixed income. Plaster peels away from the walls on the second floor. Investors call and offer to buy it, but Davis, who is now widowed, plans to stay as long as he can. “They want me to move out, [but] I feel good in my home,” he says. Then he adds with a chuckle, “I’m 89 years old. I’ll probably die here.” When he received a letter in the mail last year promoting a federally funded energy-efficiency program, his daughter, Veronica Stovall, filled out the application with him. A key piece of the Biden administration’s climate policy That program, called weatherization assistance, received a $3.5 billion boost in last year’s infrastructure law, with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while lowering energy costs for 700,000 low-income U.S. households over the next five years. That’s in addition to the $334 million Congress appropriated for the Department of Energy’s weatherization program in 2022. But due to federal regulations, whether that assistance will reach people like Davis is uncertain.

Weatherization is part of the Biden administration’s climate strategy, which aims to hit net zero emissions by 2050. “We will be able to help households in disadvantaged communities, reduce carbon emissions, and generate good-paying local jobs in every corner of America,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

A federal review found households with elderly members such as Joseph Davis, 89, are more likely than other groups to be turned down, or deferred, from weatherization assistance programs.

Hannah Yoon for NPR

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Hannah Yoon for NPR

Weatherization assistance can cover anything from energy efficient lights to new windows to improved insulation. To be eligible, households must live at or below 200% of the poverty line, which for one person living alone is $27,180, and $55,500 for a family of four. The program gives preference to seniors, people with disabilities, and those with children. Every home that’s retrofitted keeps 2.65 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted each year, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. But under federal regulations, homes may be deferred because inspectors find that work would be ineffective because of significant repair needs, health or safety concerns, or exceedingly high repair costs. In theory, that means residents can reapply once they deal with the underlying issues. In reality, many can’t afford to. “It’s almost looked at as a flaw or a void in this program” In Davis’ house, the weatherization assessment found substantial repair needs, including a leaky roof. His application was among those deferred. A subsequent estimate put the total cost at around $30,000, with the roofing bill alone over $13,000. Stovall has hired a local contractor to make some repairs, but the total cost is more than the family can afford.
Around half of all weatherization assistance applications in Philadelphia result in a deferral, according to the Energy Coordinating Agency, which carries out the program in Philadelphia. “It’s almost looked at as a flaw or a void in this program,” says ECA executive director Steve Luxton. Philadelphia has a high rate of poverty, and Luxton says that means repair needs tend to pile up. His organization refers deferred homes to a subsidized repair program, however that program is often overloaded, according to Luxton. ECA has not been tracking how many are eventually able t …

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