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Energy Efficiency and Health & Safety Measures: An Innovative Idea to Measure Success by More Than Just KWh

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There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the benefits of adding health and safety measures to the routine in-home energy audit for income-eligible customers. For example, the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation recently released its Energy-Plus-Health Playbook, which advocates aligning energy efficiency efforts with health and safety measures.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a white paper touting the public health benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

While combining energy audits and health and safety measures isn’t as flashy as technological changes, this innovative idea could lead to safer homes, lower electric bills and happier customers.

So, why the interest? It’s a combination of developments that have helped raise this issue to the forefront including—most importantly—leveling the playing field for income-eligible customers.

First, a little background. Many utilities across the nation have programs to help income-eligible customers pay their bills. Income-eligible customers typically pay a higher proportion of their available income for utility bills. Customers often have to choose between buying food and paying their bills.

While energy efficiency programs are a great way to trim energy costs for income-eligible customers, often the work can’t be completed due to health and safety issues associated with low-income housing. Those issues include environmental hazards such as asbestos, pest infestations, mold and lead paint, as well as structural issues such as damaged and leaking roof assemblies and electrical hazards.

For example, in an extreme case from Georgia, an energy audit conducted as part of the state’s Weatherization Assistance Program in October revealed a major gas leak and an exposed wire in their attic that was burning insulation and causing smoke. The couple didn’t have carbon monoxide or smoke detectors in their home and the smoke soon turned into a fire after the couple was evacuated from the home. If not for energy audit, the couple’s safety would have been severely endangered.

Shifting the focus of these energy efficiency programs from purely kWh savings to include health and safety repairs could pay benefits for the customers, utilities, energy-efficiency companies and society:

  • Customers: There is a higher instance of poor housing stock, structural issues and failing buildings in the income-qualified customer base. Removing the many obstacles to energy efficiency by allocating funds for such repairs, enables the customer to realize greater energy efficiency and makes bills more affordable.
  • Utilities: Shifting away from a purely kWh-savings model allows utilities to better serve their most needy customers, which should lead to fewer payment plans, customer shut-offs (in a worst-case scenario) and greater customer satisfaction.
  • Energy-Efficiency Companies: There’s no worse feeling for my co-workers and peers in the industry than to arrive at a home ready to make a difference in a customer’s life only to be stopped by safety or health issues.
  • Society: Improving the air quality of a home through air sealing and ventilation, heating and cooling system upgrades and, most importantly, removing health and safety risks can dramatically improve the health of people. These steps can alleviate asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and other chronic respiratory conditions, according to a growing body of research.

As you can see, there are many winners when utilities include health and safety repairs in the typical in-home energy efficiency audit. Ultimately, though, there’s really only one reason we should consider doing this: It’s the right thing to do.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2020 9:41 pm GMT

As you can see, there are many winners when utilities include health and safety repairs in the typical in-home energy efficiency audit. Ultimately, though, there’s really only one reason we should consider doing this: It’s the right thing to do.

Surely when it's put like this, it seems hard to argue with-- but I imagine there's some level of inertia or pushback that's restricting this from being the norm. What do you think is the biggest hurdle to this line of thinking being more widely adopted? 

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